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.