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.