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.