THE FINAL TEST
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 17th July, 2012
Chris Paling’s new comedy plants us firmly in Ayckbourn territory with the action split between the kitchen and garden of a suburban semi. It begins with Peter (Colin Baker) apparently dozing on a garden chair. He is listening to a radio broadcast of his beloved cricket and is clearly in his element. It takes him quite some time to become aware that his wife (Karen Ford) has packed up all the furniture and sold the house out from behind him. She has drawn stumps and is about to leave him to begin her new life with a lover she found on the internet, skinny-dipping at Bexhill-on-Sea.
This is the run-up to the main action of the play; when the housebuyers move in, they are dismayed to find Peter hasn’t left. He’s still in the garden, listening to the seemingly interminable cricket. The man (Peter Amory off of Emmerdale) takes a shine to his surprise squatter. The two men bond over the cricket and share sneaky cups of tea when the wife’s out. The wife herself (Nicola Weeks), a shrew in anybody’s book, is keen to get rid. She summons a policeman (Michael Garland) who, rather than evicting the unwelcome guest, ends up demonstrating ballroom dancing. It’s the silliest moment, the most contrived circumstance, in this otherwise grounded comedy.
Colin Baker’s delivery manages to make the bewildered and infuriating Peter both affable and tiresome. You can understand his wife’s frustration. He is adept at veering off at tangents, hijacking conversations with whimsical extrapolation, like a commentator who waxes lyrical about the birds and the clouds rather than focussing on the pitch. He spends most of the play in his wicker chair but at times reveals glimpses of the heart of the man. It turns out he’s not as selfish and inconsiderate as he at first appears. You can’t help liking him and his assertiveness at the very end, knocking his scheming wife for six, brings a satisfactory close of play.
Peter Amory adopts a gruffer accent than usual, in sharp contrast to his wife’s snooty airs and graces – she makes Penelope Keith’s Margot seem like a fishwife. They play out their marital strife, brought to a head by the interloper in the garden; he is the catalyst that helps them resolve their issues after ten years of discord. I wondered how they’d lasted that long.
It’s all rather watchable, amusing rather than having you in creases but, as with a cricket match, there are slow periods where you’re willing the action to perk up a bit. As a play about marriage it offers nothing new: communication is key, apparently. There is darkness and pain in these characters’ lives but you can’t help feeling that Ayckbourn would have handled these better and with greater theatrical flair.