Tag Archives: Alan Ayckbourn

Ups and Downs

TAKING STEPS

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 10th October, 2017

 

Alan Ayckbourn expertly directs this revival of his 1979 farce, playing in a double-bill with his latest work, A Brief History of Women.  Set in rambling manor house The Pines, Taking Steps has most of the ingredients of classic farce but the traditional element of doors is swapped for two flights of stairs.  The action takes place on three floors of the hours, with characters running, sneaking and hurrying up and down stairs in bids to avoid each other or seek each other out.  And yet, all three floors are set in the same square of stage, with furniture from three rooms sharing the same space.  The stairs are flat, running alongside two sides of the square.  This allows us to see characters in different rooms at the same time, if you see what I mean.  It works like a charm and the added silliness of actors galumphing along flat sets of stairs augments the overall ridiculousness of the plot – which I won’t attempt to summarise here.

Louise Shuttleworth is great value as Elizabeth, a thwarted (and self-deluded) dancer, attempting to leave her husband.  Laurence Pears is also great as her brother Mark, who has problems of his own, not least of which is people falling asleep when he is talking to them.  The heightened accents, a tad more RP than we use today, add to the period feel – the complications would not work in today’s world of smartphones and technology.  Laura Matthews’s Kitty is quickly established as the timid, overwrought former fiancée of Mark, while Anthony Eden’s hilariously inarticulate solicitor Watson is an absolute delight.  Leigh Symonds’s builder Leslie Bainbridge is all-too recognisable from the ‘real world’ but it is Russell Dixon’s overbearing Roland, Elizabeth’s husband, who dominates the piece and its events.  Dixon is marvellous and his Roland has many colours, all of them increasingly blurring as he knocks back the scotch.

The writing is sublime – Ayckbourn’s dialogue can’t be bettered in my view – and there is plenty of physical business as the action winds itself in knots.

Still funny after all these years and performed by a top-notch ensemble, the play reveals human inadequacies in a vastly enjoyable way, and it’s an undiluted pleasure to escape into this highly manipulated world and get away from the unfolding, deteriorating farce that is our current government and the Brexit ‘negotiations’.  Anything that brings hearty laughter in these troubled times is to be welcomed and embraced like an old and much-loved friend.

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Laurence Pears and Louise Shuttleworth argue in the bedroom while Antony Eden waits downstairs. (Photo: Tony Bartholomew)

 

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The Ayckbourn Supremacy

RELATIVELY SPEAKING

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 1st November, 2016

 

Alan Ayckbourn’s hit comedy from 1967 still comes across as fresh and funny, mainly because the devices it uses (mistaken identities, misunderstandings) are timeless and as old as theatre itself.  At the time of its premiere, the play was actually rather progressive with its matter-of-fact depiction of a young unmarried couple and their evident sexual relationship.  Ginny and Greg have only been together for a month!  Gasp!  Of course, these days we take these things in our stride; Ayckbourn was clearly ahead of the game when it comes to the way social mores were going.

It soon becomes apparent that Ginny is more worldly-wise than Greg.  Details of previous lovers emerge and she is rather too vague about the flowers and chocolates that continue to arrive.  Greg’s suspicions (among other things) are aroused and he follows her to what he thinks is her parents’ house in deepest Buckinghamshire.  Somehow he arrives before she does and so a web of mistakes and misunderstandings ensues, entangling the characters but giving the audience delicious treat after treat.  Ayckbourn takes dramatic irony and stretches it almost beyond the bounds of plausibility but he is such a master of the form, he knows exactly how to stir and season the pot.

The cast of four is excellent, playing the finely-tuned comedy like a virtuoso quartet.  Antony Eden is Greg, well-meaning, decent but a bit dim Greg, the catalyst for the chaos.  Lindsey Campbell is his perky but secretive girlfriend, with Robert Powell and Ayckbourn veteran Liza Goddard as the older couple mistaken for her parents.  Eden is energetic and likable while Campbell balances attractiveness with shadiness – we begin to suspect she’s not quite good enough for him.  Powell’s comic timing is a joy as grumpy Philip is wound up like a clock spring while Goddard is the perfect foil for him as the sweetly oblivious Sheila who is not as dim as she might appear.

Robin Herford directs with a light touch.  The characters come across as credible people in an incredible situation and the laughs keep coming.  Big, hearty belly laughs – it is as though maestro Ayckbourn is playing us like fiddles and we love him for it.  He keeps us in on the joke throughout and we revel in our superior knowledge as the characters flail and flounder.  It all seems to stem from a terribly English inability to introduce ourselves properly.  We assume, we leap to conclusions, rather than breach convention, rather than risk appearing impolite and say who we are and what we mean.  And we’re all the more fun because of it!

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Confusion reigns: Liza Goddard and Antony Eden

 


Public Parts

THE KARAOKE THEATRE COMPANY

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Friday 14th October, 2016

 

Alan Ayckbourn’s new piece (his 80th!) is something of a departure while remaining very Ayckbourn in flavour.  Ostensibly, we are in the hands of an improv troupe who treat us to several skits in various genres, calling upon us to provide sound effects en masse, with the occasional brave individual selected for greater things…

There are two words to strike fear into the heart of a British theatregoer: audience participation.  Despite the cast’s assurances that we only have to take part as much as we would like to – or we can ‘sit there and sulk’ all night, you never lose the feeling that you might be called upon at any moment for ritualised embarrassment.  But of course, it’s great fun to see others getting up – and there is no shortage of willing participants.  Naturally, the volunteers cannot match the skills of the professionals and so the cast work hard to ad lib and joke in order to cover the inevitable shortcomings.  There are shades of The Generation Game and Whose Line Is It Anyway?

As for the skits, we get a very Ayckbournesque farce about a plumber and suspected infidelity, with a string of coarse innuendos; there is a Nordic Noir dumb show dubbed by audience members haltingly reading lines from scripts; a period drama of sibling rivalry – this is performed twice with an audience member standing-in for one of the roles; and a Victorian Gothic horror that gives the cast more to play with.  The material, deliberately shoddy, us by-the-by.  We are too intent on watching for our next cue to mimic birdsong or stamp our feet to take it in properly.   The grand finale is a conjuring trick, Find The Lady, writ large with huge cabinets.

There is much to enjoy and plenty of laughs but the set-ups can take a long time for little payoff.  All the way through, I’m waiting for the twist, for the reveal that this is all a spoof, a send-up of those gung ho theatre groups of little merit, for the hand of the dramatist to reveal itself once and for all, but it never comes.

Taken at face value, it’s an amusing night out and the energy of the performers just about keeps us interested and on their side.  A bit of fun but, unusually for Ayckbourn, there’s no bite behind the laughs.

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Downright shabby (Photo: Tony Bartholomew)

 


Dramatic Devices

HENCEFORWARD

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 11th October, 2016

 

Almost thirty years old, Alan Ayckbourn’s vision of a dystopian near-future is still bang on the money.  In some ways, technology has almost caught up with the world of the play, with touchscreen tablets and face-time video messaging, and our fascination with robots continues to this day in TV shows like Humans and WestWorld.  (Not forgetting, of course, that we owe the word ‘robot’ to a 1920 play by Karel Čapek).  Science fiction not only predicts future tech but also warns us about it.  Here, the technology, not so different from our own, is recognisably frustrating with its glitches and flaws.  Meanwhile, the world outside is becoming increasingly violent, with thugs ruling the streets.  With homophobic and racist attacks on the rise today, this nightmarish world doesn’t seem too far-fetched in post-Brexit Britain.

Composer Julian, unable to work since his wife departed with their daughter, hires actress Zoe to masquerade as a life partner.  The aim is to convince both wife and an official that Julian is able to provide suitable care for his daughter and thereby gain access to his child.  When the actress doesn’t work out, Julian has to rethink his plan, adapting an android to play the role… And so the scene is set for some wonderfully farcical shenanigans and, due to the genius of Ayckbourn’s writing, some heartfelt emotional outpourings.

Bill Champion’s Julian is a broken man, who awakes from his reclusiveness through his meeting with Laura Matthews’s effervescent and ditzy Zoe.  That he gets what he wants – the composition of new music – but in doing so, loses everything, is genuinely tragic.  Matthews is an irresistibly lively presence and equally compelling in the second act when she plays the remodelled robot – played in the first act by Jacqueline King, who elicits both chuckles and chills as the wonky automated nanny.  King later appears as Julian’s estranged wife – the play is an excellent showcase for female talent.  Daughter Geain (Jessie Hart) also displays a duality – the play touches on gender roles and social conditioning.  Like the robot, we are programmed to behave and respond in certain ways.   There is also some excellent character work from Russell Dixon as wet-lettuce official Mervyn, and Ayckbourn, with his director’s hat on, orchestrates the comedy, the dramatic irony and the tension like a master.  Which, of course, he is.

It’s a play about how technology dehumanises us, getting in the way of our interactions, blocking rather than liberating our communications.

It’s also very, very funny.

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Jacqueline King, Bill Champion, Laura Matthews and Russell Dixon (Photo: Tony Bartholomew)


Most Welcome

HERO’S WELCOME

New Vic Theatre, Monday 19th October, 2015

 

Alan Ayckbourn’s latest (yes, he’s still churning them out!) is darker than most of his output but nonetheless as funny as ever. It tells the story of the return to his home town, after 17 years in the armed forces, of local lad Murray (Richard Stacey) acclaimed as a hero for his part in saving a children’s hospital from rebel forces. With him is his sweet, young wife Madrababacascabuna (Terenia Edwards) whose struggles to learn English lead to many an amusing moment.

Trouble is, no one seems happy to have Murray back. It emerges he left town under something of a cloud, having deserted Alice (Elizabeth Boag) at the altar, a woman he stole from former best mate Brad (Stephen Billington). Alice is now Mayor and wields power enough to scupper Murray’s plans to reopen his family’s old hotel.

Murray is the least exaggerated of the characters: Stacey gives him an earnest, likeable manner bringing to mind the skills of Christopher Eccleston, while Terenia Edwards, in her professional debut, sparkles as his wife (I can’t be bothered to type that name out again), growing in confidence in tandem with her vocabulary. Russell Dixon is Alice’s husband and mayoral consort Derek, a gossipy old woman of a man fixated on model railways – a stock Ayckbourn type. Ayckbourn rarely gives us absolute, complete and utter shits (I can think of Paul in Absent Friends) but here with Brad is a villain of unadulterated nastiness. Billington is dashing and dapper enough to offset Brad’s inner ugliness; we enjoy detesting him. Suffering Brad’s emotional and verbal abuse is long-suffering wife Kara – Emma Manton utterly excellent at showing us the pain behind the brave face in an outstanding performance.

Ayckbourn packs a lot in and although Michael Holt’s set is a little cluttered, the three locations-in-one work well to keep the action zipping along. There are underlying themes of the difficulties faced by soldiers who leave the army, and the treatment of immigrants as less-than-human (Brad sees Murray’s wife as fair game in a bet with Derek) but the emphasis is on the personal dramas unfolding, as events of the past come to the fore and the present situation becomes untenable.

It’s as bitter and delicious as dark chocolate, performed by a flawless ensemble and, while not a masterpiece, proves that Ayckbourn is still at the height of his powers, unmatched in his presentation of contemporary human interactions.

Richard Stacey and Terenia Edwards (Photo: Tony Bartholomew)

Richard Stacey and Terenia Edwards (Photo: Tony Bartholomew)


Storms in Teacups

ABSENT FRIENDS

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Monday 8th June, 2015

Alan Ayckbourn’s acerbic ‘comedy of embarrassment’ pre-dates Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party by a few years and television shows like The Office by many. A real-time glimpse into a suburban house, one cringe-worthy Saturday afternoon when hostess Diana is throwing a tea party for old friend Colin, whose fiancée has recently drowned to death. As the guests gather, acrimony and suspicion, resentment and bitterness, all float to the surface so that when the bereaved Colin finally arrives, he is by far the most well-adjusted and happy of the lot – and that’s not saying much!

Catherine Harvey is excellent as the brittle Diana, a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown, both driven and hampered by social niceties. Bullied by husband Paul (Kevin Drury) Diana reaches breaking point, leaving it to her guests to keep the party going. Kathryn Ritchie’s Evelyn is a truculent, gum-cracking monster, making the most of her mainly monosyllabic lines. John Dorney is absolutely hilarious as Evelyn’s ants-in-his-pants husband, John, but it’s Alice Selwyn’s Marge who takes the comedy crown in a superbly realised and rounded characterisation of a woman who mollycoddles her hypochondriac (and unseen) husband, while sublimating her own needs into shopping for hideous clothes. Here she is helped by Simon Kenny’s design work. The 1970s setting (the play is now a period piece) adds to the humour: Marge’s truly awful new shoes look funnier now than they might have done back then, when we were all wearing them.

Michael Cabot keeps things cracking along at a fair lick. Any moments of quiet are thus all the more effective, and he builds moments of crescendo with an expert touch. Ayckbourn’s script is extremely funny, showing his ear for the humour in naturalistic dialogue as well as bringing out the bleakness of the characters’ lives. Each marriage we observe is some kind of hell for its inmates. Only Colin (Ashley Cook, splendidly irritating), who escaped marriage due to his fiancée’s premature death, seems at peace – he missed the opportunity for the shine to go off his perfect relationship and so it is eternally untarnished, as encapsulated in the holiday photographs he insists on passing around.

London Classic Theatre delivers a highly entertaining production, like one of those sweets with a sour filling. Fashions and furniture may have changed but human beings remain resolutely as flawed as ever.

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Circle of Life

ROUNDELAY

New Vic Theatre, Thursday 9th October, 2014

Alan Ayckbourn’s latest is another display of his genius. Rather than one play, this is a collection of five shorts. The running order is chosen at random by audience members in the bar about half an hour before show time. Therefore, every night is different: the order in which you see the plays affects your understanding and appreciation of what goes on. Characters may appear in more than one. Names are mentioned that will resonate in other pieces. It’s a circular jigsaw puzzle of entertainment.

Each play has a different flavour: there is hilarious mistaken identity in The Politician, when an aspiring actress is mistaken for a call girl; heartbreak in The Star; tenderness in The Judge, spookiness in The Novelist; and thrills and tension in The Agent. All of them are rich with Ayckbourn’s observational humour, and each of them has its own twist or surprise.

The ensemble cast is top notch. Nigel Hastings impresses as camp, CSI-obsessed neighbour Ashley in The Agent, and as the odious Politician, channelling Boris Johnson (and yet only managing to be about 10% as abhorrent as the real thing). Russell Dixon’s Tom brings the authority and vulnerability that come with old age. Alexandra Mathie brings restraint and madness to Blanche in her two appearances. Brooke Kinsella gives call girl Lindy sweetness and understated pathos. Krystle Hylton lights up the stage as ball-of-energy teenage wannabe Roz, determined to be The Star but only if she can dispense with such time-wasting things as training and experience. Her reappearance in The Politician shows another side to the brash youngster, as nerves overcome her prior to her ‘audition’. Leigh Symonds comes the heavy as Lance: there is some quite brutal violence in The Agent, the most thrilling of the pieces, and a powerful performance from Sophie Roberts as Gale. Richard Stacey is amiable but ineffectual vicar Russ – his devastation at the hands of an old school girlfriend is very touching and is the most downbeat ending of the five – some evenings the show must end with this piece, leaving the audience with a very different feeling…

As a whole, it’s about human experience in all its colours: love, loss, memory, regret, mistakes, violence, passion, ambition, hypocrisy, lust, fear… Somehow Ayckbourn covers the lot.  Life is a dance in the round.  The characters reveal different aspects of themselves depending on the circles in which they move.

Each piece is a treat from Ayckbourn’s chocolate box. Each centre is not what you expect from the labelling. The whole evening, rather than giving you a bellyache, leaves you with a sense of satisfaction. And a sense of wonder at the kind of mind that can put all this together, while respecting the audience’s intelligence to make the connections and spot the ramifications: what is a throwaway line in one, can have life-changing consequences in another…

Bloody marvellous. I want to go round again.

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