Tag Archives: Alan Ayckbourn

How the Other Half Loves

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 30 October

If any director knows how to bring out all the nuances in an Alan Ayckbourn play, that director is surely Alan Strachan. As anyone who remembers his productions at the Greenwich Theatre in the late 1970s and early 80s will bear fond witness.

This staging of How the Other Half Loves benefits from the split-second timing of its six-strong cast, notably in the crucial dual dinner-party scene. What also comes out strongly is the way that the three men, of such dissimilar ages and classes, employ each a different sort of violence in their relationships with their wives.

Frank Foster, the middle-aged middle-class husband, bludgeons anyone he comes into contact with by his incessant barrage of opinionated nonsense. Robert Daws has his insensitivity and self-satisfaction nailed; you can understand why Caroline Langrishe as his wife Fiona is tempted to stray, emotionally, financially and otherwise.

Newly promoted William Featherstone is uncomfortable at his new social and professional level. As Matthew Cottle makes clear, he’s really only happy when making himself useful. His poor little pink mouse of a wife Mary comes in for a regular series of wrist taps – not in themselves violent, but demeaning none the less. The moment when Mary finally finds her own personality is beautifully timed by Sara Crowe who gives throughout the best performance of the evening.

The youngest couple is Teresa and Bob Phillips. Charlie Brooks makes Teresa’s frustration with her stay-at-home-and-look-after-the-baby life which eventually flares almost out of control a natural response to Leon Ockenden’s Bob, a ruffian under his show-off skin with more than a trace of sadism in his relationship with women. Ockenden’s performance at times seems to come from a different production; he fails to bring the character alive.

Designer Julie Godfrey’s set, and her costumes, evoke the late 1960s setting admirably with a well-detailed box set which cleverly amalgamate the two-homes in furniture and furnishings as six contrasted lives parade before us. They’re not in search of an author of course, just looking for a present which offers hope for the future.

Four and a half-star rating.

How the Other Half Loves runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 4 November with matinées on 2 and 4 November. It is also at the Theatre Royal, Norwich between 27 November and 2 December as part of a national tour.

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Henceforward…
reviewed in Cambridge on 22 February

There’s nearly always been a dark edge to Ayckbourn’s plays, even the most apparently fluffily light-hearted of them. Henceforward…, originally staged 30 years ago, predicates a world where creativity is both stifled and liberated by technology, where the have-nots out-number the haves and where a feral and fractured society makes its own rules. It was a nightmare vision. It’s one which is equally terrifying today.

Central to the story is Jerome, a composer. Mainly because of his creative obsessions and wholehearted embrace of the new technologies on offer, his marriage has broken down and he is denied access to his child. He is holed up in a studio-cum-living-space in a London area where the Daughters of Darkness both make the rules and enforce them. He communicates almost exclusively through a battery of electronic screens and devices.

One of these is a domestic robot, NAN 300F – a prototype which never made it into production. If he is ever to reclaim his daughter, then he needs to display a settled home environment to the social services who will determine his future access to the child (now 13 years old). So he hires Zoe, an actress from a dating agency, to act out that scenario. She arrives in his steel-boarded studio after suffering robbery and assault from the Daughters of Darkness.

These two personalities clash, react and eventually come to an understanding. The trouble is that she interprets (as a performer does) while he creates, every sound made duly recorded and then used for his “masterpiece”. When we meet estranged wife Corinna in the second act, just how much damage Jerome’s obsession has caused and is still causing is made brutally bare.

Ayckbourn has directed this touring revival with a new set by the original designer Roger Glossop. The cast is excellent – Bill Champion as Jerome, Laura Matthews as Zoe, Jacqueline King as Corinna, Jessie Hart as the mixed-up daghter Geain and Nigel Hastings as Mervyn, the official tied up (in more ways than one) with red tape. NAN 300F is well worth attention, whether grey-haired or blonde-wigged.

It doesn’t make for a comfortable evening in the theatre. It’s disturbing, as most visions of a technology-led future can be. It makes you realise why the creative artist is in so many ways a person outside the rhyme and the rut of everyday existence. The ultimate question is – do artistic ends justify the means? Ayckbourn rests his case. Make up your own mind.

Three and a-half star rating.

Henceforward… runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 25 Fbruary with matinées on 23 and 25 February.

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Bedroom Farce

(reviewed at the Little Theatre, Sheringham on 7 August)

Guest director Nicky Henson has staged Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce before. It’s a play which is obviously popular wih the Little Theatre’s audiences, whether resident or holiday-makers, and this production had us all chuckling right from the start.

We are faced by Kees Van Woerkom’s ingenious set which works miracles with the theatre’s bijou stage to show three very different bedrooms simultaneously. Each is the apparently private domain of a married couple; stage right is that of Delia (Mary Lincoln) and Ernest (Paul Lavers), about to go out for their wedding anniversary dinner. Centre stage of that of bedridden Malcolm (Rik Warren) and sprightly Jan (Melissa Clements). Stage left is the chaotic first home of Kate (Loraine Metcalfe) and Nick (Mark Oosterveen).

They are holding their house-warming, preparations for which are much interrupted, as Nick is devoted to both practical jokes and attempted DIY. Among the invited guests are Trevor (Luke Francis) and his rapidly becoming estranged wife Susannah (Maeve Smyth). He’s the cosseted son of Delia and Ernest and she’s the daughter-in-law they have never really liked.

As always with Ayckbourn, there’s genuine pain amid the laughter. Smyth takes the lion’s share of this, and one wants alternatively to shake her and condole with her. Francis gives us the sort of spoiled brat tipping over into early middle-age with whom any sensible woman would decline further acquaintance, let alone marriage. Both Metcalfe and Oosterveen spin in and out of what is obviously a relationship which will mature into responsibility – though no quite yet.

Clements’ Jan is the lynchpin of the whole thing. You can see why Delia and Ernest would have preferred Jan for their son, and why she was wise to walk away from the relationship. Warren is very funny as Malcolm, as bad an invalid as any man can be (and usually is). Licoln and Lavers embody the established couple who have reached a modus vivendi largely through discounting a good two-thirds of what the other is saying at any one time.

Bedroom Farce runs at the Little Theatre, Sheringham until 18 August and is followed by Perfect Wedding (20 to 29 August) and Private Lives (between 1 and 5 September).

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How the Other Half Loves

(reviewed at the Southwold Summer Theatre on 8 July)

You can never take an Ayckbourn play at its face value. How the Other Half Loves was his second major commercial success in 1070; David Harris’ production which opened this year’s Suffolk Summer Theatres season sensibly keeps the 1969 setting for this typical blend of sharp social satire, surreal elements and a wryly compassionate look at what motivates people to behave in certain ways in situations partly of their own making.

The emphasis, as Ayckbourn likes to place it, is very much on the female condition. We meet the Fosters – lady-who-lunches Fiona and company manager Frank – and the Phillips – company man-on-the-make and new mother Teresa – share Maurice Rubens simultaneous living rooms.

These characters have enough complications between them without really needing the Featherstones – country mouse Mary and Welsh new employee William. That’s when the sexual, social and work permutations really start to create their own momentum. If you know Southwold’s summer Theatre, you know that the stage is quite small, though Rubens’ ingenuity works a miracle of visual stretching.

Small is the last word you could use to describe the acting with the balance between over-the-top (OTT) and naturalism beautifully balanced. Rosanna Miles is in turns funny and pathetic as Mary, the mouse who does eventually unsheathe her well-concealed claws. Eliza McClelland flounces and pirouettes in her chiffon and high heels to hilarious effect (the costumes are by Miri Birch).

Then there’s Teresa (Terri to her husband and friends). Marriage hasn’t turned out to be the bed of roses she probably expected a year or so ago; her husband is an autocrat, her son is at the teething, sleepless and whimpering stage, so everyday chores like housework and cooking are being relegated to a secondary status. All of which Kate Middleton makes utterly credible.

Bob does not like what his fun-loving but acquiescent wife has becomes one tiny bit. As Chris Clarkson amply demonstrates, the man is selfish and a bully. Physically Bob may meet his match in Rick Savery’s Will – but in many ways each is as thoughtless and liable to jump to conclusions as the other. Thoughtless, in the other hand, is not an adjective you can apply to Michael Shaw’s Frank.

Yes, the man is so absent-minded and easy to distract that you wonder how on earth he has reached his senior professional level. But there’s a steel core under all that fluff and his tenacity both provides the comedy as he becomes helplessly involved in marital and social turmoil of which he was partly the cause. When he turns the tables… but you really ought to see for yourself how it ll works out.

How the Other Half Loves runs at the Southwold Summer Theatre until 18 July and transfers to the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh from 23 July to 1 August.

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Summer seaside theatre – preview 2

Tucked away on the north Norfolk coast between Wells-Next-The-Sea and Cromer (think of all those delicious crabs and lobsters for which this stretch of coast is renowned) is Sheringham. Under Debbie Thompson its Little Theatre is a thriving concern, though suffering from the usual funding crises.

The programme for this year’s summer repertory season has been announced. It was preceded between 1 and 6 June by a fund-raising production – most appropriately – of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off. The 55th summer season itself opens on 21 July with Willy Russell’s Educating Rita, directed by theatre patron Desmond Barrit; the cast includes Paul Lavers. That runs until 28 July.

Between 30 July and 5 August the mood changes with that classic thriller The Late Edwina Black, a wife who seeks revenge from beyond her deathbed. Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce from 7 to 18 August is directed by another of the theatre’s patrons, Nicky Henson. The comedy Perfect Wedding by Robin Hawdon is the penultimate production between 20 and 29 August.

Another classic, Noël Coward’s Private Lives, brings the summer season at the Little Theatre to a close from 1 to 5 September. It is directed by the third of the theatre’s patrons Peter Craze.

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Summer seaside theatre – preview 1

East Anglia boasts three well-established summer repertory seasons. First of the mark this year is Suffolk Summer Theatres, founded by Jill Freud and now managed by Peter Adshead. The season begins on 8 July at St Edmund’s Hall, Southwold with Alan Ayckbourn’s How the Other Half Loves. It runs until 18 July and transfers from 23 July to 1 August at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh.

it’s followed by a change of mood with the comedy thriller Anybody For Murder? by Brian Clemens and Dennis Spooner. That on between 20 July and 1 August in Southwold and from 4 to 8 August in Aldeburgh. Then it’s the turn of Ray Cooney’s fizzing farce Out of Order, at Southwold from 3 to 15 August and Aldeburgh between 18 and 22 August.

One of Suffolk Summer Theatre’s previous successes was the staging of The Titfield Thnderbolt by TEB Clarke, based on the class Ealing comedy film. it’s being revived at the Jubilee Hall between 10 and 15 August, then transfers to Southwold from 17 to 29 August.

The season ends with Daphne du Maurier’s September Tide, a family drama set on the Cornish coast which its author so loved. Once more this opens in Aldeburgh between 24 and 29 August before journeying up the coast to Southwold from 31 August until 12 September.

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Absent Friends

(reviewed at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford on 19 May)

Nobody does the tragi-comedy of the wrecking of relationships more skillfully than Alan Ayckbourn. Absent Friends, now 40 years old, offers us four such couples; however, one husband is bed-ridden at home and the other has lost his fiancée through a drowning accident. Michael Cabot’s new touring production for London Classic Theatre eschews the temptation to update it but treats it naturally, as a piece of its period which still has something to say to its audience even after a lapse of time.

Simon Kenny’s set – an affluent couple’s living-room in a house in an upwardly mobile area – displays all the most-have style of the period. It’s the home of businessman Paul (Kevin Drury) and his increasingly disenchanted wife Diana (Catherine Harvey). Colin (Ashley Cook) is a long-time member of their circle, perhaps less so now than when they were in their late teens and twenties. Diana is throwing a tea-party for Colin, now that he has so tragically lost his beloved Carole.

Except, of course, that he doesn’t really want consolation; he’s content with his memories of an untroubled, beautiful relationship (one which time had ensured would never even begin to sour). Marge (Alice Selwyn) has pampered her husband Gordon to such an extent that he is now an obese hypochondriac; her compensation is shopping. Hopeless salesman John (John Dorney), a man of perpetual motion, has acquired a wife Evelyn (Kathryn Ritchie), all monosyllabic estuary-English and laconic gum-chewing, and a baby, son Wayne.

Ayckbourn has laid these characters out on the table for examination, and Cabot performs a decisively neat dissection of them. From Dorney’s near-manic twitches and shuffles as John through the anger which is scarcely controlled in Drury’s thoroughly unpleasant Paul to the almost gormless bonhomie with which Cook invests Colin, the detailing is precise.

Diana has a couple of opportunities in which her frustrations boil over; the first is ostensibly aimed at Evelyn and the second (actions sometimes speak louder than words) at Paul. Harvey makes the most of these. One yearns to shake Marge out of her febrile complacency – she’s killing Gordon with pandering to his malaises while over-feeding him – Which is a tribute to Selwyn’s characterisation. As for Ritchie’s Evelyn… one can only say that if there is to be a survivor in their marriage, it won’t be John.

Absent Friends plays at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford on 20 May and at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds between 2 and 6 June as part of a national tour to 18 July.

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