Review – The Norman Conquests, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 7th October 2017

The Norman ConquestsSome scenes are just iconic, aren’t they? Lord Liverpool (who accompanied us on this full-day outing to see all three of Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s Norman Conquests, along with the Countess of Cockfosters and Professor & Mrs Plum) and I both vividly remember watching the 1970s TV version of Table Manners and seeing Tom Conti wax lyrical about the delights of Puffa Puffa Rice. You don’t get that sort of entertainment any more.

NC Annie in Round and Round the GardenAt least, not till now, with Blanche McIntyre’s immense new production of this wonderful trilogy gracing the stage at the Chichester Festival Theatre. In a nod to its original layout, they’ve converted the back of the set to take more seating, so that the plays are now performed in the round. Having had a miserable experience with “on stage seating” at the Trafalgar Studios’ Richard III a couple of years ago, I’m a great believer in once bitten twice shy and so we happily occupied the centre of Row C of the regular seating.

NC Sarah and Annie in Living TogetherIn case you don’t know, Annie has arranged that her nice-but-dull brother Reg and his uptight control freak of a wife Sarah will come down for the weekend to look after Mother whilst Annie has a much-deserved weekend away for a rest. So why is her brother-in-law Norman (married to her sister Ruth) lurking in the bushes of their overgrown garden? Is there really an assistant librarian’s convention that weekend? And what about vet Tom, who holds a candle for Annie but is too emotionally reserved to do anything about it? He keeps coming over to check on Annie’s pussy (yes, I know it sounds as though it’s written by Mrs Slocombe, but bear with me). The pussy’s in the tree with a septic paw, and all Tom can do is shout “Pussy!” occasionally. Over the course of the weekend, all is revealed; no one finds happiness but just maybe they might in the future….

NC Norman in Round and Round the GardenAyckbourn’s trilogy is beautifully structured so that you see the same story over the course of the same weekend in three different areas of the house – the living room, the dining room and the garden. Ayckbourn wrote all three plays concurrently, in chronological order; starting with Act One Scene One of Round and Round the Garden (5.30pm Saturday), then the first scene of Table Manners (6pm) and then the first scene of Living Together (6.30pm). In that way he was able to accompany Norman on his journey of havoc in the same sequence that our eponymous hero does. By the time we reach the final scene of Round and Round the Garden at 9am on Monday, we have a full picture of all the intrigues and misunderstandings that took place the whole weekend. Miss one of the plays out, and you’ll only get half an appreciation of what really went on.

NC Annie and Norman in Table MannersIt’s an absolute delight to observe how the three plays interlock. There are overlapping action moments like Reg exiting one room and entering another with a waste paper basket, and Tom exiting and entering bellowing his false and hearty laugh. There are other moments where a character has changed costume for no explicable reason, until you discover the reason why in another of the plays. Ayckbourn also sets up deliberately misleading threads for the audience. There’s more than one occasion where a character reflects that they may have upset someone or said the wrong thing; the audience makes an assumption as to what that might be, only to watch one of the other plays and find themselves proved totally wrong. It’s like a stand-up comedian with a routine full of callbacks that you don’t appreciate until they hit you unexpectedly. Round and Round the Garden contains one scene of misunderstanding between Tom and Ruth that is so blissfully executed and that leads on to further scenes of jaw-droppingly inappropriate behaviour that it’s worth the ticket price for all three shows on its own. If you miss it, then much of what happens later on in the other plays will remain a mystery.

NC Tom and Reg in Round and Round the GardenWe saw all three plays on the one day, in true theatrefest style. Living Together was on first (11am – such a treat), with Table Manners at the standard matinee time and Round and Round the Garden in the evening. Whatever you do, see the garden play last. Maybe, on reflection, you should see Table Manners first; that way the character of Norman is kept back from you till the last possible moment.

NC Annie in Living TogetherIt’s interesting to see how the plays have dated just a little in some respects. Each contains a moment of violence which is played primarily for comic effect; two of those occasions you could describe as “domestic violence”, and each time Norman is the victim. Ayckbourn always did have the knack of making you laugh out loud and then cover your face with shame for laughing. He honed that skill with developing subtlety over the years; but back in 1973 it was a little less sophisticated. At one point, Ruth uses the word “halfwit” as an insult, and it stood out to me as being maybe acceptable for a previous era but not enlightened enough for today. However, the age-old themes of marital (dis)harmony, naughty weekends away and an inability to express one’s feelings are never going to go away; nor is the mention of “East Grinstead” ever going to create anything other than risible scorn, especially to an audience of Sussex-siders.

NC Norman and Sarah in Round and Round the GardenSimon Higlett’s design preserves a hint of home counties garden at the edges (herbaceous borders I presume) for all three plays, whilst creating homely and slightly drab areas for the living and dining rooms. Would I be a tad picky if I were to suggest a larger dining table might have helped sight lines during Table Manners? From my seat I couldn’t see the visual prankstering between Norman and Tom which forms a considerable part of the comedy of the Act Two Scene One dinner fiasco, because Sarah obstructed my view. Congratulations to Lizzie Frankl’s props department for recreating a Puffa Puffa Rice box, seeing as how they haven’t been sold since 1975.

NC Annie and Reg in Table MannersIn best Ayckbournian tradition, the cast make a brilliant ensemble, with no one actor or character standing out as the star; everyone gets his or her own magic moments. Jonathan Broadbent’s Reg reminded me of the Harry Enfield father-in-law character, with his ghastly positivity, nasty driving gloves and endless insistence on everyone playing his wretched game – although, to be fair, I thought it sounded quite fun. I loved his proof that chess is no more realistic than any other game – that was the best mincing diagonal bishop ever. Sarah Hadland’s Sarah couldn’t be more different, with the white knuckled tension she brings to almost every scene. Rattling through her lines with unnerving urgency, she’s brilliant at playing that bitter, thwarted, disappointed housewife, only occasionally allowing herself a moment or two of release – such as at the end of Living Together, when the subject of Bournemouth crops up. Sarah’s grand moment of comedy comes with trying to seat everyone around the dinner table – her middle-class pretensions ruined by a bunch of unruly co-diners who don’t give a stuff about etiquette.

NC Tom in Living TogetherAs Annie, Jemima Rooper (a mischievous Elvira to Angela Lansbury’s Madame Arcati a few years ago) brings a vulnerable charm to the role, nicely blending the tomboy with the coquette as she stuffs her fists into the pockets of her shapelessly comfy old jumper that hides the alluring party frock underneath. Annie runs the gamut of emotions A to, well not quite Z but a long way down the alphabet. Flirtatious, furious, apologetic, tentative, embarrassed; these are just some of the moods that Ms Rooper uses to represent this very put-upon person whose glimmers of hope for the future are slowly being extinguished. As her wannabe suitor Tom, John Hollingworth cuts a perfectly ungainly figure; the occasions where Tom’s inability to understand the rules of a game or get a joke are genuinely hilarious, as you see the cogs turn behind Mr Hollingworth’s eyes but no ratchets engage. The physical comedy of his scene with Ruth, which ends up with them rolling down the side of the garden is just superb, as is his public-school fisticuffs mistaken defence of Annie at the dinner table. You know someone is getting the role right when the audience just affectionately groans when Mr Hollingworth lumbers on to the stage. A fantastic comedy performance.

NC Ruth in Round and Round the GardenHattie Ledbury also gives a brilliant performance as the disdainful Ruth, accepting life with Norman as a game where she constantly loses, only occasionally allowing us to see the embers of their relationship – on the fireside rug, not inappropriately. As vanity (which she denies) doesn’t permit her to wear her glasses, she stumbles myopically on the sidelines of everyone else’s relationships and doesn’t care at all who she hurts. Trystan Gravelle’s Norman is the catalyst for the disastrous weekend; an excellent performance that allows us both to empathise with and loathe him. It’s important for the plays to work that we can believe that Norman is, strangely, irresistible in a certain light – his so-called magnetism that means women just fall for him. I could just about see it, which is perfect; too obvious and he’d just be a dumb Don Juan character. Irritating, patronising, deliberately pushing for a reaction of any sort, yet also oddly fragile, Mr Gravelle gives us a great performance of a character you’d really be better off not knowing.

NC Ruth and Norman in Living TogetherOne slight quibble; I don’t know if anyone has told the cast they’ve got to get through these plays as quickly as possible because people have trains to catch, but I was surprised how much they continued to drive on with speeches after a big laugh, rather than waiting for the laughter to die down a little. Mr Hollingworth was the best at holding back and waiting; I won’t say who was the worst! But we are all there to have fun and a laugh, it only seems fair to give us a chance to get our belly laughs out of the way before they deliver us more Ayckbourn gems.

NC The whole cast in Table MannersIf you’ve seen The Norman Conquests before – firstly, you don’t look old enough; moreover, you’ll love getting reacquainted with this dysfunctional household of various reprobates. If this is all new to you, you’ve got a wonderful combination of farce and comedy of manners with a 70s twist to look forward to. An early masterpiece by one of our greatest comic playwrights. On until 28th October; it would be great if it were to transfer too.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Henceforward…, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 7th February 2017

HenceforwardAt the ripe old age of 77, you could describe Sir Alan Ayckbourn as a veritable playwriting machine with 78 full length plays to his name and more awards than you can shake a stick at. I always think of him as pretty much unassailable when it comes to creating a well-made play that pleases its audience by bringing comedy and tragedy within spitting distance of each other and then seeing who comes out on top. Even in the early years, where his comedies seem much more classically “drawing-room” or “polite sex farce”, there was always that hint of menace lurking somewhere beneath the sheets.

jerome-and-nanA few of his plays have been referred to as his “science fiction” comedies. The excellent Communicating Doors involves time travel between twenty years ago and twenty years in the future. The hilarious Comic Potential is set in a time where androids perform in soap operas. For me his worst play (that I’ve seen anyway – controversial!) Improbable Fiction deteriorates from the relative sanity of a writers’ group to a fantasy imagination trip where the fictions of the first act become the facts of the second.

zoe-and-nanBut the first of these experimental plays was Henceforward…, which was first performed in Scarborough (naturally) in 1987 and moved to the West End in 1988. Set some time in the near future, composer Jerome lives in a rough neighbourhood of London where violent vigilantes the Daughters of Darkness (I wonder if Tom Jones demands royalties?) have replaced the police as the only law enforcement agency. Neurotic wannabe actress Zoe has been hired by Jerome from an escort agency for purposes that are unclear at first. Jerome has had “composer’s block” ever since his estranged wife Corinna took his beloved daughter Geain away (that’s Jane, but with added pretentiousness) four years earlier. If only he could convince the authorities that he and his home are suitable for looking after a child, his worries would go away and he would become artistically fecund again. In the meantime, all he has for companionship is NAN 300F – a robot nanny, obsessed with washing people’s faces and bringing them milky drinks because she is automatically programmed to recognise everyone as a child. Jerome hatches a devious plan that uses all his available resources to convince the authorities and Corinna that he can take responsibility for Geain again. What is that plan, and does it work? You’ll have to watch it to find out.

zoe-and-jeromeIf you put aside the science fiction element, you’re left with a fairly standard tale of a sad lonely man advertising for female companionship, which moves on to a Pygmalion-style farce of trying to impress the family with a beautiful girl who has no social ability unless it’s learned by rote. The science fiction element, however, gives it a fascinating window-dressing, which, with the benefit of hindsight, Ayckbourn got pretty spot-on. Giving NAN verbal instructions back in 1987 on how to do the housework could be replaced today by people asking Alexa to tell them jokes or put a record on. Unsurprisingly, when Jerome is confronted with choosing between real life or a robot, it’s not an easy decision for him to make. The Hi-tech composing board, camera security system, portable phones and oven facilities were all basically available back then (although, no doubt, cutting edge) but today are commonplace. The suggestion that a character is developing into a transgender identity must have been fairly surprising in 1987, whereas today it’s a phenomenon that most people accept without question. Plus ça change, etc.

zoeWhat I feel the play lacks – a little – is that great Ayckbournian crunch between the comic and the tragic. In this play, the tragic elements are kept at arms’ length off-stage: the dystopian society; Jerome’s mate Lupus, constantly ringing in seeking support from his old friend which is never given; the physical assault Zoe receives on the way to the flat. We the audience don’t really come into contact with these elements. What we see instead is either hilarious, or neutral; and I felt the first act in particular was too long with its scene-setting and the general disengagement of the character of Jerome. There’s no question that you can set all that to one side once the second act has begun, but it does take some patience and indulgence towards the author to get that far.

zoe-and-jeromeHowever, the play does benefit from an excellent cast. I thought Laura Matthews as Zoe was absolutely first rate all the way through. A really bright presence on stage, conveying all that nervousness of the young actress in a strange man’s house, needing a job but with no knowledge of what it would entail; crying, then laughing, then crying again within a split second or two. Her second half performance requires a completely different skillset and she performs it admirably! Bill Champion is required to be downbeat as Jerome throughout much of the first act but he comes back to life vigorously in Act Two and his alternating portrayal of self-satisfaction and frustrated disappointment is very enjoyable to watch.

corinna-jerome-and-zoeJacqueline King is brilliant as the no-nonsense, no-warmth Corinna, dominating much of the action in the second half whilst seeking to catch Jerome out any way she can; very ominously coming out of character occasionally in the first act, to add that vital ingredient of menace. Nigel Hastings makes an excellent job of presenting us with the pettiness and vanity of the pernickety safeguarding supremo Mervyn; and Jessie Hart gives us a brief but extremely effective portrayal of Geain, proving beyond any doubt how a child can change in four years.

zoe-and-geainThis production, directed by Ayckbourn himself, started at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, and still has Windsor and Cambridge to visit. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and the science fiction/robotics angle can act as a barrier to understanding the humanity lurking beneath. But it is there, the second act shenanigans are extremely funny, and at the end it’s satisfying to see everything fitting into place. Is it an optimistic ending? No, it’s as bleak as hell. But it’s right.

Review – Communicating Doors, Menier Chocolate Factory, 7th June 2015

Communicating Doors 1996Hurrah for the theatre programme archive boxes in my study which quickly yielded up the programme for Alan Ayckbourn’s Communicating Doors, which Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw on Saturday 3rd February 1996 at the Savoy Theatre, with Miss Angela Thorne playing the part of Ruella. That’s almost twenty years ago. Maybe it isn’t a coincidence that twenty years have passed since the play first opened in the West End, as there are two periods of twenty years each that separate all three of the time scales in the play. But it’s not an epic staged over forty years, it all happens at the same time. Didn’t you know about that? Am I going too fast for you?

Communicating Doors 2015The scene is a grand suite at London’s Regal Hotel, in the year 2020. Poopay, a rather sassy visiting dominatrix has come to give aged and infirm client Reece a good going-over. Reece has other ideas for her though, getting her to witness his signature on a document where he confesses to have arranged the murder of both of his ex-wives. In an attempt to escape for her life, Poopay dashes through a communicating door in the hotel room, only to find that, rather than taking her to another room, it takes her back to the same room, only twenty years earlier. Thus she discovers Reece’s second wife Ruella on the eve of her murder (by his somewhat violent and wicked business partner Julian, as it happens). Once Poopay has cottoned on to what’s happening, it’s up to her to convince Ruella of the danger she is in. Fortunately, Ruella is a spirited sort who enjoys a challenge. Ruella discovers she too can go back another twenty years via the communicating door, to discover Reece and Jessica (Wife #1) on their honeymoon night. Can the three women gang up together to use time to their advantage, defeat evil and create some happy-ever-afters where the course of all three of their lives turns out beautifully? You’ll have to see the play to find out.

Imogen StubbsAyckbourn’s play is a modern classic of the “playing with time” genre. It was J B Priestley who really explored this style all hammer and tongs in the 1930s and 40s. Among his time-plays are Dangerous Corner, I Have Been Here Before and of course An Inspector Calls, rather moody, melodramatic plays, all revolving around time-tricks that are impossible in real life, with Priestley often using the device to expose hypocrisy and wickedness. Whilst the threat of violence and death is not inconsiderable in Communicating Doors, cocking a respectful hat to Psycho in one scene, Ayckbourn’s version of the time-play is nevertheless a much jollier affair, played strictly for laughs, and you don’t have to gen up on any Einsteinian time theories in advance. But I’m sure Priestley would have loved it all the same.

Rachel TuckerFor this production, the wonderfully flexible Menier space has been set up as a traditional proscenium arch, creating a very wide stage perfect for the grandeur of a five star hotel suite. Whilst the main living room area of the suite has a timeless appearance, it is perhaps stretching credulity that the ensuite appearance and tiling would be the same in 1980 as it is in 2020. But then I can’t believe I’m actually looking for consistency in bathroom fittings over a period of forty years when the play itself is a complete flight of nonsense from start to finish.

Lucy Briggs-OwenIt’s often been said that Ayckbourn writes great roles for women and here is a triumivirate (or should that be triumfeminate) to rank with the best. Imogen Stubbs is brilliant as Ruella, mixing hearty, brave, and enthusiastic characteristics with demure and unassuming behaviour. Mind you, she’s not above fluttering her womanly wiles at the hapless security man to get her way, manipulating in a thoroughly nice and decent manner, of course. Rachel Tucker, too, gives a delightful performance as Poopay, the dominatrix who’d probably be more comfortable tucked up with a late night cocoa, occasionally subtly revealing a hidden insight into what you imagine might be her rather sad and lonely world. As she faces her fears, running the gauntlet of Reece’s and Julian’s evil scheme, she and Ruella show great sisterly solidarity with each other, like a kind of time-warp self-help group. And then you have the wonderfully near-vacuous Jessica, played by Lucy Briggs-Owen, sweetly dippy on her wedding night, but blossoming in sophistication in later years – with a wonderfully underplayed moment where you realise what her ultimate fate will be. All three of them join forces in one amazing slapstick scene on the balcony – physical comedy at its funniest.

David BamberThe “supporting” male cast are all very good too. There’s a splendidly low-life performance by David Bamber as the irredeemably horrible Julian, dripping with snide and malevolence, ready to snap your neck as soon as look at you. Robert Portal convinces us with both the nasty and kindly sides of Reece – being nasty certainly does nothing for Reece’s health, that’s for sure (nice work from the make-up department). And there’s some wonderful comic timing from Matthew Cottle as security man Harold, both bumptious in youth and beaten by age, and who also gets his own share of happy-ever-after.

Matthew CottleWe’re pretty sure all the loose ends tie up together, and, in the strange otherworld logic of the play, it kind of all makes sense. Incidentally, the original production had the three elements of the play set in 1974, 1994 and 2014. In our more modern society, Lindsay Posner has chosen to set the “future” scenes only a handful of years away, rather than a complete generation. A result of that is that whereas the original production had the “Ruella Years” for the contemporary setting, this production has “today” hovering somewhere between the two. So it looks like the director can play with time just as much as the author. Whatever, this is a timely opportunity to catch this great Ayckbourn play with a cast that do it terrific justice.

Robert PortalP.S. Great idea at the Menier now to have the bench seats in different colour fabric every two seats. That makes it so much easier to see where you should (and should not) be sitting, and may well discourage some people from spilling over into next door’s patch. Nice work!

Review – Arrivals and Departures, The Ayckbourn Ensemble, Oxford Playhouse, 6th February 2014

Arrivals and DeparturesYou know that thing when you’re having a conversation with someone, but actually you’re hardly concentrating because you’re wrapped up in other thoughts about other problems – and you hope the person you’re talking to doesn’t notice; well, has it ever occurred to you that the person to whom you are talking is also not concentrating because they too are immersed in their own thoughts and daydreams? No, me neither. But that is the central tenet of Alan Ayckbourn’s 2013 play, Arrivals and Departures, his 77th, would you believe; I was going to call it his new play but I see that there’s already a 78th opening in Scarborough this summer.

BaggageThis very inventive and rewarding play is set at a London railway station and, from reading the programme notes, you get the feeling Ayckbourn has always wanted to set a play in a railway station. Observing people in transit, people waiting for others to arrive, and the people who work at the station, and so on – I think this has been an ambition. For Arrivals and Departures, it’s almost as though he has taken the ideas for two separate plays – a “train station” play and a “memory, obsessed with one’s own thoughts” play, and very successfully woven the two together.

Kim WallMaybe there are even traces of a third play here too – in the actual plot, which is way beyond the boundaries of your average domestic comedy. When the play starts you are a little confused as to the set-up, but you quickly realise that you are watching the preparations for a military security operation, an attempt to ambush and capture a terrorist on the train coming down from up north into London. This doesn’t feel like typical Ayckbourn territory, but then he has written about so many subjects now that I don’t think there is such a thing anymore. As the rehearsals for the ambush team progress, we meet Barry, a well-meaning but over-talkative Yorkshire traffic warden, who is the one person that has met the terrorist and would be able to recognise him in a crowd – so he is there to confirm that the guy they capture is the right one. We also meet Ez, (not Esme, as she will frequently point out) a somewhat wayward and unconventional soldier whose job it is to protect Barry, should it come to that particular crunch.

Elizabeth BoagAs we await the arrival of the train containing the terrorist, code name Cerastes, we see flashbacks in Ez’s mind as she recollects her childhood and the difficult relationships with her mother, and how, as a result, she finds it hard to commit to a relationship with Rob, a seemingly decent soldier type, which has its own unfortunate consequences. Her conversations with Barry get in the way of her thought processes, but his good nature starts to break down her resistance; and when the terrorist does finally appear, she successfully manages to protect Barry, although Barry is convinced they’ve got the wrong man. Here comes the interval.

Barry and QuentinI won’t tell you what happens next, but it’s absolutely not what you were expecting. Suffice to say, this is a “time” play, so expect Ayckbourn to manipulate the usual conventions to make his point. I was kind of dreading a rehash of his play “Improbable Fiction”, which was the last Ayckbourn we’d seen at the Oxford Playhouse, and which had a hilarious first act but (for us) a totally stupid, useless, surreal and not at all satisfying, second act. I needn’t have worried. Arrivals and Departures is a supremely better play, which opens up a lot of loose ends before neatly tying them all together. I do have one criticism though – the structure of the play requires a certain amount of repetition in the plot and dialogue, and I did think that this detracted a little from its overall dramatic intensity. However, there is also the fun for the audience of working out where there will be repetition and where there will be new material – you can’t always second-guess it. The plot climax definitely moves the action forwards, and is one of the most touching conclusions to a play I’ve seen in some time. To be honest, the lady on the other side of Mrs Chrisparkle sobbed her heart out.

AmbushKim Wall plays Barry and it’s a complete star performance. I’ve told you before how I first came across Mr Wall, so I won’t bore you with that story again; however, he remains one of my favourite actors, and I wonder why he has never really hit the big time. Barry’s vocal mannerisms, the way he doesn’t like to let a silence go unfilled, his potential to be really boring, his underlying total kindness, his dignified but positive response to the cruelty of life and his complete lack of regard for his own safety, are all beautifully brought to life in Mr Wall’s performance. Equally good is Elizabeth Boag as Ez, uncomfortable, soul-searching, reserved, but with the possibility of allowing the ice in her heart to thaw. Mrs C pointed out how extraordinarily well she conveyed anger (Mrs C has a great dislike of the default position of “anger = shouting” in some productions we’ve seen). There’s a brilliant scene between Ez and Barry, where she loses her cool with him and tears an unnecessarily sharp strip off him – her gradually changing reaction as she realises what she has done is superbly conveyed.

Rehearsals for an ambushIt’s an excellent ensemble performance throughout, with the cast of eleven playing thirty roles. In the performance we saw, the role of Quentin, the leader of the security operation, was played by Peter Halpin and he was superb; a vain, self-absorbed little Hitler if ever there was one. When his operation comes to a not-entirely-satisfactory conclusion, all he can think about is himself. It’s a very clear depiction of someone who isn’t actually as good at their job as they think they are, or indeed ought to be. In all the memory scenes, I particularly enjoyed Sarah Parks as Ez’s worrisome mother, and James Powell as the young Barry, all 70s suit and ineffectual bonhomie; but all the cast give an excellent account of themselves.

Railway station sceneI would have liked to see the other productions that are in repertory with this play, all performed by this Ayckbourn Ensemble company; namely a revival of 1992’s Time of my Life, and two one-act farces combined under the title Farcicals, which sound like an antidote to the serious themes of Arrivals and Departures. However, as Mrs C often tells me, “you can’t see everything”. The plays are on at Warwick Arts Centre this week, and then go on to Cambridge, Cheltenham, Bath, Watford and Windsor. If Arrivals and Departures is anything to go by, these audiences are in for a treat.

Review – Relatively Speaking, Wyndham’s Theatre, 31st August 2013

Relatively Speaking Hello again gentle reader, it’s been a few weeks since we met. How are you doing? Oh that’s great, me too. Yes, been away, on our travels. I know, what are we like? Right, that’s out of the way. Saturday 31st August 2013 saw the demise of a number of decent shows so Mrs Chrisparkle and I headed off to London to catch a final chance to see a couple of them. Back in May I remember thinking it was a shame that we couldn’t see the new production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking at Milton Keynes because it was on during Eurovision week, the one week of the year when theatre has to take a back seat. Then it transferred to London for a short run and I rather forgot all about it. But there was a matinee shaped hole in our calendar for last Saturday so I bit the bullet and bought tickets. And I’m so glad I did.

Wyndham'sIn the hectic hassle-filled days of 2013, the countryside leafy garden breakfasts of 1967 seem a lifetime away; indeed many people don’t make it to their 46th birthday. Yet whilst there is a definite sense of naiveté to at least one of the characters, the repercussions of extra-marital how’s your father is a timeless theme, and I am sure that any audience member with a few guilty secrets of this genre will experience some squeaky bum moments during this play. This was Ayckbourn’s first really successful work, written at the request of Stephen Joseph (with whose name Ayckbourn’s work will always be inextricably linked), who wanted a play for Scarborough “which would make people laugh when their seaside summer holidays were spoiled by the rain and they came into the theatre to get dry before trudging back to their landladies” – a quote from Ayckbourn’s introduction to the 1968 published edition. I’m sure it succeeded in that venture; and today it succeeds in packing out a Saturday matinee with nice middle class people who can rely on the writer’s and cast’s reputation for humour with a twist, but nothing too risqué.

Felicity KendalThe first scene takes place in Greg and Ginny’s London bedsit; the rest of the play on Philip and Sheila’s garden terrace in Lower Pendon, Bucks. The rather reassuringly Home Counties map that is used as a front curtain helpfully traces the railway route from London out towards Buckinghamshire that Greg and Ginny (separately) take in order to find this rural idyll; and I was delighted to see that the director Lindsay Posner had decided that Lower Pendon is the fictional name for Wendover, where I lived from the age of 5 till I got married. I can indeed endorse that if ever there were an idyllic rural Bucks village with a railway station, you couldn’t do better than choose Wendover.

Kara TointonBut I digress. This is a superb revival of Ayckbourn’s deliciously constructed and tightly written play; fifteen minutes of scene-setting then an hour and a half of full-on non-stop talking at cross purposes which results in a high comedy of misunderstandings; with three people shuffling their guilty secrets and an innocent fourth person crashing into them all. One character’s deceptions appear to be fully revealed; another person you realise has an additional secret that you don’t find out about until the end; and a third person you are always unsure of, and that uncertainty continues post-final curtain. There’s enough suggested intrigue to keep you guessing and surmising long after you’ve arrived home.

Jonathan CoyIt would be hard to imagine more perfect casting for this play. Sheila is played by Felicity Kendal; we’ve seen her in a few plays over the years but I don’t think she’s ever put in such a pitch perfect performance. She is totally convincing with her Home Counties niceness and she reminded me so strongly of the mothers of all my Bucks/Herts middle-class school friends, scattered throughout the Lower Pendon villages. Her comic timing is immaculate and her respect for and understanding of Ayckbourn’s words means they are delivered beautifully, wringing every last nuance out of them. Her character has a natural dizziness and you sense an additional faux-dizziness that she assumes when it suits her; but her genuine confusion at the situation in which she finds herself becomes yet a third layer of dizziness, and the whole combination is a complete winner. Her conversation with Greg about her not being Ginny’s mother still cracks me up.

Jonathan CoyJonathan Coy, lynch pin of many a West End hit show, gives a great performance, accurately portraying the bullying business bighead for whom it’s perfectly OK to deceive but completely unacceptable to be deceived. It’s one of the most hilarious and intelligent performances of a comic hypocrite you’re every likely to see. Kara Tointon is terrific as Ginny, the rather fab 60s girl with a mini-dress stashed full of secrets who thrashes out as a form of defence when things get too tricky, but whose heart is in the right place – maybe. And Max Bennett is superb as the wide-eyed honourable innocent boyfriend Greg who can’t see the blinking obvious when it’s staring him in the face, and whose well-intentioned but ill-advised blunderings cause havoc to all around him.

Max BennettWhen I was a student I wrote to Alan Ayckbourn for his opinion about theatre censorship, which was the subject of my (still-to-be-finished) thesis. He said that it “had very little effect so far as I was concerned, since by the time it was withdrawn in 1968 I was only, as it were, a fledgling dramatist, as yet too inhibited and too unadventurous to write anything that anyone could consider worth censoring”. It’s slightly ironic, therefore, that the opening scene of this production has Mr Bennett emerging from the bathroom naked, his frontal modesty protected only by two bunches of flowers and with no attempt to conceal his posterior. It was all done with great deftness, and it was indeed very funny; but it was another of those “let’s get someone to take their kit off even though there’s no real call for it in the script” moments. I can’t imagine the late Mr Richard Briers, the original Greg, flashing his buttocks to all and sundry; and indeed, I am sure the Lord Chamberlain would not have been amused.

This is but a minor quibble. It’s a terrific production of a play that still has the ability to make a packed audience laugh like drains. Superbly performed and put together, I’m really glad we finally managed to see it.

Review – Mr Whatnot, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 5th & 6th April 2013

Mr WhatnotAbout a hundred years ago, gentle reader, when I was but a lean and callow youth (well, not particularly lean), I was trying to put together a thesis about the withdrawal of stage censorship in the UK in 1968. This was long before the advent of emails and Google, so I wrote letters to many splendid dramatists of the day to ask them if they’d ever had a run-in with the censor. One of those to whom I wrote was Sir Alan Ayckbourn (although he was plain Alan in those days). He kindly responded by saying that he was (and I quote) “in those days a fledgling dramatist as it were and never wrote anything remotely worth censoring”.

Cal McCrystalCertainly his “Mr Whatnot”, which first saw the light of day in 1963 and was barely heard of again after its disastrous brief London run in 1964, doesn’t grapple with any of the meaty subjects of its illustrious contemporaries. Pinter’s Homecoming, Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane, for example, you would have thought were from a completely different era. So reviving this early Ayckbourn is a fascinating experiment in showing a perhaps ignored side of the sixties drama scene.

Liz CrowtherI knew nothing about the play in advance, other than the fact that it had been a flop, which is something you rarely associate with Ayckbourn. I was, however, impressed with the fact that it was being directed by Cal McCrystal, whose CV includes the physical comedy direction of the wonderful One Man Two Guvnors. Alas Mrs Chrisparkle and I were away for much of March travelling round South East Asia (blog posts will appear in due course, I trust) so we missed all the excitement of the opening of this production, and in fact just managed to get back home in time to see it on its final Friday night. We enjoyed it so much, that the next day we actually booked to see it again, at the matinee, and took Lady Duncansby along as a surprise treat. I don’t think, in 45 years of theatregoing, I’ve ever gone back to see the same production so rapidly. I also can’t think of another play where the eponymous hero doesn’t say a word. Godot doesn’t count because he never appears; Joe Egg (as in A Day in the Death of…) is a mute child throughout apart from when she skips onto the stage to introduce the interval. If you can think of one, please let me know!

Russell DixonAt first, I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it, as it presents itself as something so different from “your average play” (whatever that might be). We are introduced to the piano tuner, who goes through his usual domestic morning chores of making a cuppa and attending to his pussycat. This person is, we discover later, Mr Whatnot; a man who does everything in mime, to a range of informative sound effects. Once Mr Whatnot has settled down with his morning paper, we meet the upper class residents and guests of Craddock Grange – and it was at this point that I began to worry a little. They were all very stereotype characters (lord, lady, posh girl, wet fish boyfriend, hearty country lady) but without the stereotype set of an elaborate drawing room/country mansion – you feel that the set of The Mousetrap would be perfect for it. But as the silliness of the play kicks in, you realise that the strength of the production is in the way the audience’s imagination fills in all the gaps, and that the largely blank stage is vital to its success. By the time the lisping toffee-nosed Cecil was getting excited about the sight of “duckth” in the pond I was in seventh heaven of comic entertainment.

Antonia KinlayThe show has so many experimental aspects that really excite me in the theatre. I love the way it breaks the fourth wall; it has elements of burlesque, the plot goes completely off tangent a couple of times into ridiculous flights of fancy and then gets brought back sharply to reality (such as it is); and all this is in the context of a very simple comic story of an outsider wreaking havoc in a domestic environment. There’s not an ounce of cynicism, harshness or sadness in the plot; it’s simply an experiment in finding the comic light and wallowing in it.

Charles HuntEvery member of the cast puts in a delightful performance. Liz Crowther’s Lady Slingsby-Craddock is a marvellously comic blend of the refined and the randy, and the way she gets dragged and spun around on the floor is almost balletic! Russell Dixon as his Lordship has immaculate comic timing, and can extend a belly laugh for ages with just one resentful glance at a misbehaving family member. The scene where he merely utters a four-letter word is comic genius simply because of its terrific shock value.

Flick FerdinandoAntonia Kinlay plays Amanda, the rather sweetly thick heiress to the Slingsby-Craddock estate, and she’s superb. She really gets the 60s vibe in her appearance and trendy dancing, and is delightfully provocative to the smitten Mr Whatnot. Her awful beau, Cecil, is played by Charles Hunt and he makes a brilliant priggish spoilt brat of public school idiot.

George KeelerFlick Ferdinando (what a splendid name) is hilarious as the back-slapping tweedy lady, feverishly competitive at tennis and with no inhibitions where it comes to afternoon tea – and also as the bottom-swinging, flamenco dancing maid; and George Keeler’s performances as all the other minor characters are full of wonderful physical comic business and he invests them all with their own special individuality.

Juanma RodriguezBut Juanma Rodriguez as Mint (or Mr Whatnot) has to take the plaudits for his incredible performance. His face is so expressive and his physical comedy so inspired that you simply can’t stop watching him. You could say there is a similarity to Mr Bean – only to an extent though, because Mr Rodriguez’ performance never strays into the grotesque and is always completely believable. You also (well I did at least) really identify yourself with him, and want him to succeed in all his little subversive plans to get the girl. Technically faultless on both performances we saw, his bio in the programme suggests he normally works in Spain, but I really hope we get to see him again in the UK.

It would be a tragedy if this wonderful production were never to see the light of day again. It was a privilege to see it.