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!