The Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 5th May 2022
This collection of five short pieces by the prolific Alan Ayckbourn was first produced in 1974 – a fact which informs Jacquie Campbell’s costume choices for tonight’s show, subtly suggesting the period, when the piece is suited to anywhen.
We begin with four park benches on which random individuals are taking their ease — or trying to. What develops is a string of monologues as each individual seeks to escape the stranger who insists on talking to them. It’s funny, with each stranger having their own individual voice, but it underlines the main theme of the piece (indeed of all five pieces): desperation born of loneliness. Ayckbourn can write a funny line sure enough, but he is also an acute observer of the human condition.
Of the strangers, a couple of standouts are Kevin Hand’s Arthur and Margot McCleary’s Doreen. Director David Mears avoids things becoming static by keeping people moving from bench to bench (this also helps with the in-the-round staging). It’s like musical chairs without the music. The cast perform with a sort of heightened naturalism. Every character however bizarre or mundane their situation – rings true.
Next up is Lucy, a woman left too much alone with her children. She has lost the ability to converse with adults, so when the couple next door pop round to check up on her, hilarity ensues. Zoe Mortimer is great as the steely-eyed, assertive mother, and she is matched by Charlotte Froud’s timid Rosemary, with Barry Purchase-Rathbone providing contrast as Rosemary’s bluff husband Terry – until he is put in his place! It’s very funny to see the adults revert to childhood, but the piece touches on darkness based on psychological truth.
The director himself appears in the next one, as Harry, Lucy’s absentee husband, a boorish, sleazy sales rep who thinks he’s God’s gift, trying to cop off with Jemima Davis’s longsuffering Paula. Mears gives a cringeworthy performance as the desperate lothario — one of Ayckbourn’s finest middle-class monsters — and we can only sympathise with Paula as she fails to get away. Rescue arrives in the form of her best friend Bernice, in a coolly forthright portrayal by Kristiyana Petkova.
Next we’re in a restaurant where two separate couples have issues to discuss. We eavesdrop on their conversations as the waiter goes from table to table, valiantly trying to do his job. As the waiter, Elliot Gear is a delight, reacting, interjecting, and keeping busy, all with a strained professional demeanour. A star turn.
Finally, we move to the tea tent at a dreadful village fete. Trouble with the p.a. system leads to an inadvertent broadcast that destroys a relationship. With hilarious consequences. David Mears appears again as Gosforth, the busybody organising the event, showing his versatility with another of Ayckbourn’s monsters. Lily Skinner’s Milly is tightly wound, becoming increasingly frantic as the situation deteriorates. Jane Grafton brings a strong whiff of Christine Hamilton to her portrayal of Councillor Emily Pearce, making her eventual humiliation all the more delicious. Justin Osborne is a hoot as the emotionally immature boy scout leader whose life comes crashing down, and David Gresham adds value as a stock character comedy vicar. Events descend into organised chaos, with the cast working superbly to convey the urgent desperation and the slapstick of the moment. I would prefer a bigger bang with the electrics go awry, but that’s just me.
All in all, a splendid evening of entertainment and almost non-stop laughter. Mears gets the tone just right and his talented cast (wish I had room to mention them all) deliver the goods in this showcase of their abilities. If the Bear Pit is to stage any more Ayckbourn, I would like to see them tackle one of his later, more experimental shows. Shows like Confusions are bread-and-butter to them. I want cake!
Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 29th February, 2020
Ever ambitious, the Bear Pit Theatre Company have taken it upon themselves to stage Alan Ayckbourn’s classic comedy trilogy. To this end, the theatre has been transformed so that the plays can be staged in the round, as Ayckbourn originally intended. The action of the plays takes place in and around the same house over the course of a weekend and each play interlocks with the others like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle but the good news is, each piece stands alone in its own right to provide an entertaining couple of hours.
This one, as the title gives away, takes place in the garden. Annie (Lily Skinner) is planning a dirty weekend with brother-in-law Norman (Roger Ganner) but their departure is delayed until the arrival of brother Reg and his wife Sarah, stepping in to look after the invalid mother. Lily Skinner gives us all of Annie’s fretfulness and neuroses – a carer in desperate need of a break – while Roger Ganner shines as her unlikely paramour, the shabby, selfish Norman. The least likely thing about him is his job as a library assistant but then everything about Norman is inappropriate, and yet Ganner imbues him with a particular kind of charm.
Andrew Lear is the monstrous Reg, the kind of man who communicates by advising which A-roads you should have taken. Lear booms, dominating conversations, making empty vessel Reg a joy to behold. Vicki Jameson is also great as the haughty and frazzled Sarah, Reg’s longsuffering wife. Thomas Hodge is in superb form as Tom, a hanger-on who uses his status as local vet to keep coming around to tend to Annie’s cat. Hodge’s Tom is an affable twit – we quickly get the feeling this is a play about women’s frustrations with men, who are all infuriating in their own way.
We have to wait until the second act to encounter Norman’s wife Ruth – an ice-cold Zoe Mortimer, whose searing condemnations of the male sex give the play its social commentary. Ayckbourn writes women’s points of view exceptionally well, and Ruth is a prime example. “Oh, I suppose those kinds of women must exist,” she snaps, ”in books. Written by men.”
As you might expect from an Ayckbourn, these middle-class, middle-aged monsters are caught in a hell of their own making. Each character has their own moment and director Nicky Cox does a bang-up job of getting her actors to shine, balancing the tensions with the inherent humour, the farcical action and the wonderfully funny lines.
The set, designed by Cox together with Ginny Oliver, keeps things simple: an oblong of turf framed by paving stones, with a couple of things to sit on, and an unruly clump of foliage in a corner, is all you need. It’s a play about the people, not the garden, after all. The transformed auditorium keeps things up close and personal and it all works like a treat. A splendid ensemble giving a virtuoso performance of a fine piece of work. I can’t wait to see the other two!
Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 1st November, 2019
Two estranged sisters are reunited in the neglected garden of their family home, following the death of their abusive father. The elder, Annabel, hasn’t been back for decades, but stands to inherit the lot. It fell to the younger sister, Miriam, to care for the old bastard, with the help of a hired nurse, whom Miriam has recently sacked. The nurse, Alice, confronts Annabel, claiming to have evidence that Miriam had a direct hand in the death of her father. Blackmail rears its ugly head and Annabel finds herself in a situation where she is forced to protect her sister… So begins Alan Ayckbourn’s taut little thriller, a tale of coercion, bitterness, resentment, and murder. More celebrated for his comedies, Ayckbourn shows here a different string to his bow. The premise, the intrigue, and the subsequent twists and turns are Hitchcock-worthy. A deceptively simple three-hander, the play offers plum parts for older women to get their teeth into. moustache of epic proportions.
Rachel Alcock plays hard-faced Annabel, who barely lightens up at all and remains rather severe throughout. It is the character’s defence mechanism, I suppose, given the tribulations of her life, but I would like to see her reveal a more vulnerable and sympathetic side – especially during her lengthy speech about her failed marriage.
Alex Kapila turns in a compelling performance as the disturbed Miriam, displaying emotional immaturity one minute and inner fire the next. As the power shifts around the trio, we’re forever changing our minds about who exactly is the victim here.
Completing the trio is Barbara Treen, pitch perfect as the sinister blackmailer. Ayckbourn’s superlative writing is in good hands with these three, and director Lynda Lewis navigates the highs and lows, the lights and shades of the dialogue to great effect. The physical action needs to be tighter; the actors need more confidence in their moves, and I think the climactic scene in the middle of the night can afford to be darker, so that almost all of the lighting comes from the two handheld lanterns. This would augment the eeriness and the unsettling nature of proceedings.
There are more scares to be had if the director pushed the envelope just a little farther. Still, this is a solid and entertaining production of a dark and clever play, and it’s well worth an evening of your time.
The upper hand: Alice (Barbara Treen) comes between sisters Miriam (Alex Kapila) and Annabel (Rachel Alcock)
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.
Laurence Pears and Louise Shuttleworth argue in the bedroom while Antony Eden waits downstairs. (Photo: Tony Bartholomew)
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!
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.
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.
Jacqueline King, Bill Champion, Laura Matthews and Russell Dixon (Photo: Tony Bartholomew)
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)
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.
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…