New Vic Theatre, Monday 19th October, 2015
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)
1 Comment | tags: Alan Ayckbourn, Elizabeth Boag, Emma Manton, Hero's Welcome, Michael Holt, New Vic Theatre, review, Richard Stacey, Russell Dixon, Stephen Billington, Terenia Edwards | posted in Theatre Review
New Vic Theatre, Thursday 9th October, 2014
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…
Bloody marvellous. I want to go round again.
Leave a comment | tags: Alan Ayckbourn, Alexandra Mathie, Brooke Kinsella, Krystle Hylton, Leigh Symonds, New Vic Theatre, Nigel Hastings, review, Richard Stacey, Roundelay, Russell Dixon, Sophie Roberts | posted in Theatre Review
ARRIVALS & DEPARTURES
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
1 Comment | tags: Alan Ayckbourn, Arrivals and Departures, Ben Porter, Elizabeth Boag, James Powell, John Branwell, Kim Wall, New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, review, Richard Stacey, Sarah Parks, Terence Booth, theatre review | posted in Theatre Review
TIME OF MY LIFE
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
Leave a comment | tags: Alan Ayckbourn, Ben Porter, Emily Pithon, James Powell, John Branwell, New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Rachel Caffrey, review, Richard Stacey, Sarah Parks, theatre review, Time Of My Life | posted in Theatre Review
ABSURD PERSON SINGULAR
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.
1 Comment | tags: Absurd Person Singular, Alan Ayckbourn, Ayesha Antoine, Ben Porter, Bill Champion, Laura Doddington, New Vic Theatre, review, Richard Stacey, Sarah Parks | posted in Theatre Review