Tag Archives: Alan Ayckbourn

Moments of Madness


The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 17th June, 2014


Susan (Meg Fraser) is living a middle-class nightmare. The love has gone from her marriage to vicar Gerald (Richard Conlon), her son hasn’t spoken to her since he joined some kind of sect in Hemel Hempstead, and her sister-in-law is slowly poisoning them all with her atrocious cooking. When she wakes from a bump on the head, Susan gets to sample a different life, with an idyllic family, sexy husband (Andrew Wincott) and grounds to an estate that goes on for miles… Susan is increasingly confused: which is real?

Marilyn Imrie directs Alan Ayckbourn’s comic drama so that Susan’s confusion doesn’t translate to our enjoyment. We see hallucinated characters react to Susan’s real life family, and it’s gloriously funny. Thanks to a powerhouse of a central performance from Meg Fraser, Susan’s tragedy is also apparent. The blending of real and hallucinated is supported by Ti Green’s impressive set, which houses Susan’s real garden in a dreamlike landscape of tree trunks and a suspended box on which projections are made and in which characters from Susan’s imagination appear, along with some atmospheric music composed by Pippa Murphy.

Fraser is supported by a strong ensemble. Richard Conlon makes a fine comedy vicar and infuriating husband, while Neil McKinven as the doctor, bridges the gap between the real and the imagined. Irene Macdougall is good value as sister-in-law Muriel, and Scott Hoatson brings sensitivity to selfish son Rick.

In Ayckbourn’s assured hands, the sitcom-ness of Susan’s home life is transformed into a tragic-comedy of a woman’s decline into mental illness. It’s Fraser’s performance that dominates and impresses in a production that never falls short of entertaining – as Susan’s mental state unravels, the more we feel for her.

A co-production between the REP and Dundee Rep Ensemble, Woman in Mind continues the Birmingham theatres run of excellent productions, and demonstrates yet again why Ayckbourn is one of our most important playwrights.





The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 9th January 2014

Alan Ayckbourn’s 1984 comedy is set in the world of amateur dramatics.  Professional productions of the piece usually cannot afford to put enough bodies on the stage to represent the scale of an amateur cast, while amateur companies have the advantage of lots and lots of willing (if not necessarily able) members with whom to fill the performance space.  Birmingham’s Stage2 youth theatre company is short of neither bodies nor ability – what impresses first and foremost is the focus and discipline of the crowd scenes.  Director Liz Light keeps the teeming throng of young actors tightly packed while at the same time allowing for the individuality of each and every one of them.  It’s like watching a Hogarth engraving come to life.

The plot charts the progress of handsome but inhibited widower Guy Jones (played by Tom Baker – not that Tom Baker, although there are traces of Matt Smith in his performance!) as he auditions for a part in the chorus of his local am-dram’s production of The Beggar’s Opera.  He meets affable but tyrannical director Dafydd ap Llewellyn – a towering portrayal by Ethan Tarr.  Guy works his way up the cast list and through various female members of the society.

Baker is the perfect foil for Tarr’s monstrous Llewellyn, although one suggestion I would make is that everyone needs to take it down a notch, especially in the earlier scenes.  The Ron Barker Studio allows smaller, understated work.  The cast need to take their foot off the pedal a bit so that when the action unfolds and simmering emotions boil over, they have somewhere to go.  This way the contrast between moments of relative peace and outbreaks of aggression and resentment is sharper.  It seems a little too angsty and uptight from the get-go.

That being said, as Guy finds himself more deeply embroiled on and off stage, there is some lovely comic playing.  Baker is highly skilled at being uncomfortable and his reactions to what he sees and hears are excellent – especially his spit-takes.  Tarr plays all the colours of the tyrant like a virtuoso.  His sudden explosions of sarcastic rage are hilarious.

But this is far from a two-man show.  I can’t mention everyone in this superb ensemble but I will point out Helen Carter as Dafydd’s wife, played with sensitivity and truth.  Priya Edwards’s Fay is more broad as a characterisation but equally truthful with her knowing humour.

The adult themes and subject matter are handled beautifully, leading to some hilarious moments of misunderstanding and unintentional innuendo on the part of the characters.  Such is the quality of some of the acting, it is easy to see past the youth of the players.  Andrew Brown elicits empathy as the clueless, useless Ted who gets the brunt of Dafydd’s ire and derision and I also enjoyed Sarah Quinn as the aggressive barmaid/stage manager.  George Hannigan gives a well-observed turn as old boy Jarvis – similarly Rosie Nisbet’s Rebecca is played with assurance, haughtiness and stature, convincingly middle-aged rather than the teenagers they actually are.

The staging is kept simple (there isn’t room for much!) but there is sophistication in the handling of settings and transitions.  At the end when they appear in their 18th century costumes and rise to the occasion of their show, it’s a measure of the high quality of the production as a whole.

Amateur actors acting as bad amateur actors in quite a feat to pull off.  The dozens of members of Stage2 fill the space with their energy, dedication and talent, undaunted by the complexities and nuances of Ayckbourn’s script.  With a lighter touch at the beginning, this production would be flawless.


Tom Baker as Guy Jones

Comings and Goings


New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Friday 11th October, 2013

Troubled soldier Ez is tasked with looking after Barry, a witness who will be able to identify a terror suspect when a train arrives.  As they wait, Barry’s loquaciousness (particularly about the weather) tests Ez’s patience to the limit but gradually they form a mutual respect and understanding.

Alan Ayckbourn’s latest play is more than a brief encounter on the railways.  The first act is intercut with flashbacks of Ez’s past.  The second is a repeat of the first act although this time the flashbacks reveal Barry’s personal history.  It’s a supremely effective device that maximises the impact of events when they reach both anticlimax and shocking denouement.

Elizabeth Boag is very strong as the cold and reserved Ez, who despite herself forms a kind of attachment to the wittering buffoon in her charge.  Kim Wall dazzles as Barry, who first appears as a numpty from the North (he sports a baseball cap rather than the stereotypical flat variety) but is revealed to be a lovely bloke.  Both are shown to be victims of unscrupulous people their paths have crossed.

Running the undercover operation is Quentin (a splendid Terence Booth) rehearsing his troops in scenes that show the soldiers’ amateurish dramatics in hilarious light.  There is powerful support from the likes of John Branwell, Richard Stacey and Sarah Parks, and I particularly liked James Powell as the young Barry, embarking on married life and taking over his father-in-law’s business.  Ben Porter again impresses with his versatility but really the entire ensemble merits praise for the seemingly effortless naturalism of their portrayals within a heightened and extraordinary situation.  Even the farcical elements are played for truth and this is why it works like a well-oiled machine.

Ayckbourn’s script balances riotous humour with amusing character study as well as giving us some dramatic and very poignant moments, while keeping the element of surprise up its sleeve.  It’s an entertaining, affecting piece, reminding us that we all have pasts of our own; we all go through life’s mill, but sometimes circumstances conspire to bring us together with a stranger and encounters, however brief or bizarre, can lead to a genuine connection.


Elizabeth Boag and Kim Wall

No Time Like The Present


New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 8th October

In a restaurant, members of the Stratton family gather for matriarch Laura’s 54th birthday.  It’s a favourite venue and a bit of a family tradition – which is good, because all the action can take place on one set.  Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy was first produced in the 90s.  Now, 25 years later, it is still as relentlessly funny as ever – along with the usual Ayckbourn undercurrents of tragedy and bitterness.

What sets this piece apart is the structure.  We join the action during the celebration dinner but then, at other tables in the restaurant, we follow the fates of Laura’s sons.  We see one son’s future unfold at one table, and the other’s past is revealed at another.  It cuts from one to the other seamlessly and we are never confused about where we are in the timeline.

The ensemble works excellently to reveal these characters.  As selfish Laura, Sarah Parks brings a deadpan humour to the callous observations, balanced to perfection by “EveryDad” Gerry (the superb John Branwell).   Laura’s neglected son Glyn (Richard Stacey) matches her in monstrous selfishness, and one really feels for his good-natured wife, Stephanie (a delightful Emily Pithon).  Over-indulged son Adam (James Powell) is less abrasive than his brother, a sort of hapless twit in Tweed who, after some hilarious misunderstandings, falls for the dubious charms of hairdresser Maureen (Rachel Caffrey, bringing bathos and colour to the proceedings).

For me, the touch of genius comes in the device of having one actor play all the restaurant staff.  The versatile Ben Porter is a scream as a range of waiters in dodgy wigs and Greco-Albanian accents, mangling the English language, bursting into incomprehensible song and making gestures, lewd or threatening as the case may be.  This keeps the play firmly rooted in comedy even though some very dark things are said and indeed happen, off-stage.

The theme is reflected in the title.  It is about recognising moments of happiness when they occur rather than in bittersweet retrospect.  Which is, of course, easier said than done.  But while you’re in the theatre, revelling in this virtuoso display of acting and comedic brilliance, for that couple of hours you are enjoying the time of your life.


No present like the time

Museum Piece

Derby Theatre, Monday 22nd October, 2012

I first saw this production over a year ago in the confines of the studio at Lichfield’s Garrick theatre. There the proximity of the audience added claustrophobia to the set. Now on tour in larger venues, the set has been extended and details have been added – even though the audience is now at a distance, there is still a hemmed-in atmosphere, and it works very well indeed.

Widower and bereaved father, Joe (Duncan Preston) has bought and preserved the student digs of his musical genius daughter, the eponymous and unseen Julia, and has established a shrine-cum-museum-cum-education centre in her memory. He invites Julia’s former boyfriend, Andy (Joe McFadden) now a married man and a music teacher, to have a look around. But there is an ulterior motive: strange sounds like laughter and weeping have appeared on the commentary tapes. Joe has invited local psychic Ken Chase (Richard O’Callaghan) to find out if he can shed some light…

Atypically for an Ayckbourn play, these characters are not monsters of the middle class held up for ridicule or pity. These three men are rounded, understandable creations: the grieving father, the cynic, and the believer. Between them, and with some carefully crafted dialogue and monologues, they crank up the tension, slowly building, suddenly puncturing, then building again. It is a masterpiece in scary drama, less overtly theatrical than long-running West End hit The Woman In Black, but equally as effective.

Preston is powerful as the driven father, seeking understanding of his daughter’s premature death. McFadden is at once the audience’s eyes, leading us into the situation, but comes into his own when he reveals his own involvement in the tragedy. But for me, the evening belongs to Richard O’Callaghan as the slimeball psychic, too old for his ponytail, the antithesis of Coward’s Madame Arcati. We are kept guessing about him: is he genuine? Is he faking? Until the action runs its course and reaches a climax.

You don’t need to believe in ghosts or the afterlife or anything of that nature. The play invites you to suspend your disbelief for a couple of hours. It lures you in, not with trickery and special effects, but with the compelling humanity of the characters.

Director Andrew Hall handles every aspect of the production expertly, using visuals, sounds and even temperature to optimum effect. The performances of the cast are allowed to shine through but yet again it is Ayckbourn’s mastery of the craft of making theatre, of revealing humanity, that is the true star.

Christmas Crackers

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 16th October, 2012

Three Christmas Eves, three kitchens, and three couples. Ayckbourn’s play from the 1970s seems deceptively straightforward. Each of the acts is an exercise in comedy of some kind: comedy of manners, black comedy, slapstick and the traditional bringing authority figures into ridicule… to name but a few. By the end of the evening, the play has charted the rise of petit bourgeois Sidney, the upwardly mobile shopkeeper and small businessman. Along the way he becomes a monster and a boor, but the others, the bank manager with whom he invests, and the disgraced architect desperate for work, have to dance to his tune – or rather freeze when he stops the music. Within the couples, fortunes rise and fall: Hopcroft’s cleaning-obsessed wife becomes his equal; suicidal Eva reins in her philandering husband and takes charge of his business affairs ; and Marion, the bank manager’s wife sinks from snobby disdain to rampant alcoholism.

Yes, there is darkness permeating their lives but for the audience it is a treat to sit back and watch as this finely tuned clockwork reveals its delights. As Sidney, Ben Porter stands out, at first neurotic and slimy, he gains confidence as his empire grows. Laura Doddington is a hoot as downtrodden Jane who is able to enjoy herself when Sidney gains other victims to bully. Ayesha Antoine’s Eva gives us contrasts: the strung out on antidepressants woman at the start could not be more different to the hardened and focussed wife at the end. And yet it is in the second act, in which she doesn’t say a word, that she really shines as each mute attempt to top herself with whatever’s handy in her kitchen, is hilariously and unwittingly thwarted by her unwelcome guests. Richard Stacey plays her husband Geoff, perhaps the least exaggerated character of the bunch and the architect of his own downfall. Bill Champion brings a note of pathos to befuddled bank manager Ronald, still puzzling over why his first wife left him, and Sarah Parks’s Marion descends into drunkenness with a startlingly well-observed performance.

I’ve seen this play several times but never before in a production directed by Alan Ayckbourn himself. Here the class distinctions seem sharper, the darkness casts a longer shadow. When first produced, the play must have seemed prescient about the rise of the Thatcherite, the businessman over the professional and the powerful. Now it seems to hint that the banks are hopeless and we must all kowtow to private enterprise – the power is in Hopcroft’s greedy hands and he is a brute without taste, grace or concern for public welfare.

Having Relations

Festival Theatre, Malvern, Tuesday 28th August, 2012

This revival of one of Alan Ayckbourn’s early plays shows that even in his late 20s, the playwright was a master of comic form. He was later to become more experimental with structure but this neat four-hander shows how a simple set-up of misunderstanding can be spun out of control to a dizzying and hilarious effect.

It begins in the London flat of Ginny (Kara Tointon). It is in this opening scene that we are most reminded that this, contemporary in its day, has now become a period piece. Audrey Hepburn and The Beatles posters break up the garish pattern on the wallpaper. Water damage stains the ceiling. There is that curious mix of vibrancy and dinginess you see so often in the 1960s. This is important only for a couple of details that time and society have left behind. Once the action transfers to the Buckinghamshire garden of Philip and Sheila, the play stands up almost as if it had been written yesterday.

As Ginny’s boyfriend Greg, Max Bennett begins the play in the nude. Wrapped in a bedsheet he amuses himself with Sabu impressions and seems well on the way to becoming a standard Ayckbourn prat. He’s not as amusing as he thinks he is – which is what makes him amusing to us. But the genius of the writing doesn’t stop there: When the sheet comes off and it begins to emerge from the dialogue that Ginny is not being fully truthful, it is amazing how quickly we become endeared to this prat. He is a vulnerable and well-meaning sort (and pretty buff too!).

The real Ayckbourn monster of the piece is Philip (Jonathan Coy) whose double standards quickly expose him. He and his wife (Felicity Kendal) suspect each other of having affairs. She teases him with letters she has mysteriously received on Sundays, in a bid to make him jealous and win back his attention. He is better at covering his tracks.

Greg shows up out of the blue, believing he is calling in on Ginny’s parents to ask them for her hand in marriage. From here on in, the comedy is cranked up notch by notch as layer upon layer of misunderstanding and confusion is piled on. Add Ginny’s arrival and the revelation that she is there to end it with her older lover Philip and the entire second act is a dazzling display of invention and farcicial situations. As nuggets of information become clear, and pennies begin to drop, a power play starts, as characters strive to preserve the misconceptions in order to manipulate the situation to their own ends. It is staggeringly entertaining, not just in the writing but the comic playing and timing of this gang of four is perfect. Felicity Kendal is spot on as the dizzy wife who at last turns the table on her adulterous husband. Jonathan Coy does a nice line in apoplexy and convivial sarcasm as the monstrous Philip. Max Bennett makes for an amiable prat and Kara Tointon keeps her cool as wily Ginny, trying to keep a handle on the situation. Lindsay Posner’s direction keeps the action ticking along, allowing each character their moments of light and shade.

It is a treat of a night out. A glimpse at how sexual mores may have altered and a reminder how the timeless ingredients of comedy: misunderstandings and mistaken identities can work like a charm in the hands of a master.

Ayckbourn Supremacy

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 25th January, 2012

Sometimes you hear a joke that is so good it doesn’t matter who tells it. The teller may try to ‘do the voices’ and animate the joke with gestures but there might be something off with the timing or the punch line gets fluffed but the joke survives and makes you laugh anyway.

That’s what the current production of Alan Ayckbourn’s 1970s comedy is like. The cast goes through the motions of performing this comedy of relationships (it’s a farce in name alone) but they don’t quite hit the mark. Ayckbourn’s characters are middle-class monsters but they are always credibly so. Here it is as though the actors have picked a single characteristic of their role and run with it for the entire play. There is little variation or subtlety in the characterisations.

Best of the bunch by a country mile is Jen Meeghan as Kate. She gets the tone exactly right and handles the heightened but seemingly naturalistic dialogue very well. The others veer towards caricature. I’ve never seen Kate’s husband Malcolm ( Paul Brotherton) played so camp before. It adds a touch of waspishness to the marital disagreements but doesn’t really suit what is essentially a bluff character. I felt John Whittell warmed up as Ernest as the play went on but Paula Wall’s Susannah was misinterpreted. She was too brittle a tragedienne and too glam, rather than the hippy-dippy away-with-the-fairies, affirmation-spouting weirdo the character is written to be.
Bedridden Nick (Jeremy Wyatt) managed to be gruff and unpleasant but without a sense of irony. He was an unpleasant man in a bed, rather than a man made unpleasant by having to stay in bed with his bad back.

I think that’s my bugbear with this production: the lack of subtlety. There needed to be more work done on the inner life of the characters to bring out the truth of them and to give them the depth that is all there in the subtext.

Pat Brown and Jen Coley dress the cast in some wonderful 1970s outfits and Colin Judges’s set (the bedrooms of three of the couples) reveals more about the characters than the actors manage.

There are a few moments where the pacing is off. Director Graeme Braidwood lets the action unfold at a steady pace but needs to sharpen the contrast at certain points to bring out bigger laughs.

Ayckbourn’s writing is the star. The play survives the pedestrian performance and remains an enjoyably barbed look at the minefield of married life.

Present Arms

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 24th November, 2011

Alan Ayckbourn’s seasonal comedy is doing the rounds again in this quality production directed by Robin Herford, boasting an ensemble cast assembled it would appear from the soaps – there’s him from Walford and her off of Doctors… Audience members around me were playing Spot the Star.

Whatever their provenance, it’s a bloody good cast. The play covers the period from Christmas Eve to early morning after Boxing Day. Neville and Belinda Bunker have filled their house with friends and family. Spinster-in-the-making Rachel has invited her writer friend Clive to join them for the festivities. If you’ve ever spent Christmas with someone else’s family, you will be aware of the pitfalls.

Add to the mix a pair of warring uncles: one (the magnificent Dennis Lill) believes society is going down the pan at a rate of knots and goes around armed to the teeth. He gives little children guns as Christmas presents – one lucky lad gets a crossbow, having received his gun the previous year. The other uncle (Christopher Timothy) is an ineffectual doctor with an alcoholic wife (the hilarious Sue Wallace) and a habit of performing excruciatingly inept puppet shows every year, despite the family’s hatred of this ritual. Tensions simmer and boil over. The writer makes a move on the hostess but their coitus under the Christmas tree is interrupted by a Duracell bunny, wrapped up for one of the kids, banging its drum and alerting the household.

As socially awkward novelist Colin, Mathew Bose is at once endearing to the audience and also the recipient of most of our cringes. We feel his awkwardness and embarrassment, when Dennis Lill reveals the six-inch throwing blade he keeps strapped to his lower leg, or when inhibited Rachel tries to express herself whenever she can snatch a moment alone with him.

The play is a comedy of manners but there is also plenty of physical comedy and wonderful moments to enjoy. The rehearsal of the puppet show is always the highlight for me, every time I see a production. Uncle Bernard’s Three Little Pigs is as funny a play-within-a-play as that of the Mechanicals’ in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Glynis Barber as neglected wife Belinda shows the fragility of the character. She has one of the darkest speeches in the play in which she reveals her need to try to keep up-to-date with each new thing, and her complete inability to do so. “You have to take an interest, don’t you?” she says. “If I didn’t, well, I’d just die.” This is as bleak a moment as any in Chekov.

The play ends with early morning farce, in which Colin is carried off to hospital having been shot by the mad uncle who mistook him for a looter of Christmas presents. The typical family Christmas might not involve firearms but, as Ayckbourn shows us, can still be quite a battlefield.

A Little Trouble in the Big Society


New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Tuesday 18th October, 2011


When middle-aged brother and sister, Martin and Hilda move into the Bluebird Hills development, a minor incident involving a boy from the nearby council estate prompts them to instigate a neighbourhood watch scheme to protect themselves and their property.   Thus Alan Ayckbourn sets up the latest of his long, long line of plays, but this is no cosy, suburban sitcom – they never are, for that matter.


The characters vent the fears of the middle classes, as seen in the Daily Mail, but it is not these perceived and distorted objects of terror that prove to be the nightmares in the end.  Martin’s neighbourhood watch scheme soon blossoms, burgeons and gets out of hand.  The residents soon give up their civil liberties and agree to carry identity cards to allow them ingress and egress.  The fences get higher.  Razor wire adorns the walls. Patrols roam the streets with baseball bats.  Even the Police have to seek permission to enter the now-gated community.


Martin finds an inner strength, at first from his faith and his pacifism, but then from his acceptance by the committee as their undisputed leader.  Sister Hilda has her own agenda.  It is not long before sub-committees are established: for morality, and for discipline and punishment.   A wronged husband eagerly researches, designs and builds a set of stocks, with the promise of more medieval devices of harsher punishment to come.  With the bad guys all kept at bay, the residents seek to police themselves.  How quickly they devolve from sticky beaks and curtain twitchers to full-on war on terror, Sharia law, power-crazed lunatics!  They seek to mete out their form of baseball bat justice on the undesirables on the neighbouring estate.  This leads to a final showdown with the Police, culminating in Martin being shot to death, all over a misunderstanding over a garden gnome figure of Christ.   If he could relinquish the symbol of his beliefs, for only a few seconds, he would live to chair meetings another day.  But he cannot, has not the wit to, and so, hilariously, is martyred.


Evil sister Hilda’s true colours have come to the fore well before this point.  A sour-faced, bowl-haircutted, Ann Widdecombe of a woman, she survives to spread her twisted values, with added hypocrisy.


The play grows darker with every scene.  At one point Hilda and her henchwoman question the young bride from next door about the bruises on her arms.  It is an inquisition all the more chilling because of their politeness and reserve.


Ayckbourn subverts his own genre, you might say, by showing us these middle class monsters and daring us to identify with them.  They build their own cage and become both guards and prisoners.


This play has a lot to say about a certain view of the world and how easy it is for society to panic itself into extremes of behaviour that are far worse than the original perceived problem.


The excellent cast, led by Matthew Cottle and Alexandra Mathie as Martin and Hilda, don’t miss a nuance of characterisation or a beat in delivery of yet another highly-crafted script.  Directed by the playwright himself, Neighbourhood Watch is a topical comedy, a cautionary tale in these dark days.


As a footnote, I would like to add that the auditorium of the New Vic was, on this occasion, worse than any doctor’s waiting room for coughing throughout the performance.  Please, New Vic, sell lozenges – if people will insist on rustling sweet wrappers during a play, I would rather they were opening cough sweets.