By: Alan Ayckbourn
Directed by: Alan Ayckbourn
Venue: Connaught Theatre
Date: Tuesday 30th January 2007
This was good fun – another Alan Ayckbourn special. Like a lot of his recent work, he sets up the situation in detail in the first half, and you have to wait for the second half to see the full comic potential emerge. In this case, it’s a family situation, with two abused wives and two macho husbands, unthinking and uncaring, subjecting their wives to serious unpleasantness, and even violence. There’s also a son who’s still at school, to add to the mix.
Mal and his wife, Jill, are a married couple with two kids – Chrissie, who’s married to Dean, and has a young baby, Liam, and Sam, still at school and wanting to act, which his father disapproves of. Thinks acting is for poofs – you know the sort. We see Mal and Chrissie go through their day – Mal as the bullying, aggressive manager of a furnishing store, and Jill the depressed housewife, hardly getting dressed before her son gets home from school. Chrissie comes round to go shopping with her Mum, and ends up spending the day with her, doing her best to give her support. During this time, we discover that she’s being beaten fairly regularly by Dean, the apple of Mal’s eye – a “real” man as far as he’s concerned. Dean works with Mal, and joins him in the boozing and bullying. Sam, on the other hand, seems more sensitive, and doesn’t enjoy regular schooling. We’re aware that he’s probably got a crush on his English teacher, which is why he’s so keen to do the acting, but when we see his Francis Flute later on, he’s not bad. More on that later.
Mal has refused to sign a form that Sam needs in order to be involved in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, being done as part of an open-air theatre program, not part of the school’s drama work. His mother has promised to sign another copy of the form, and to keep it from Mal, and to help Sam with his lines the next day. Mal has had to deal with a sick secretary, Sandra (he’s threatened to fire her if she’s not in work the next day), a stroppy client whom he’s told to “fuck off”, and his lover, Trixie, whom he sees at lunchtime, with Dean covering for him. A visit from Head Office is also pending, so he’s feeling pretty stressed. Jill is obviously depressed, and could do with getting out of the house by getting a job, while Chrissie needs to find some way to hold her own against Dean. Not Happy Families, this.
At the end of the day, with Mal leaving the remains of his curry stinking up the living room, and refusing to engage in conversation with his wife, we’ve seen the worst that men have to offer their partners, and some of the depths that women plumb trying to live with them. With no explanation given, Ayckbourn is confident enough in his writing skills to have Mal and Jill change personalities during the night, so that Jill wakes up in Mal’s body and he in hers. This we see just before the interval, and Jill/Mal’s scream as she sees herself in the bathroom mirror was a joy to hear. We then spend the second half getting to see how these characters deal with their role reversals, and how the other characters handle the changes. Brilliant fun.
Sam is the first to notice the differences – his Mum is now clearing her chestiness in the morning rather loudly instead of his Dad. Mum no longer knows where anything is in the kitchen, while Dad has put on a pinny and Marigolds, and is cleaning the place up. At least Sam eats breakfast for once – his Mum’s never barked the order to eat at him so fiercely before!
While Mal/Jill is gracelessly coming to terms with being domesticated for the day, Jill/Mal is bonding with everything in sight. She empathises with Sandra, whose “feminine problems” are keeping her off work for another day, and advises her to see a doctor as soon as possible to get it sorted out. She organizes a whip-round at the store for Charlie’s wife, who’s just had a baby, so they can send some flowers. And she deals with the stroppy customer, back for a return bout, by agreeing with everything and promising nothing – apparently that’s the best way to deal with that type. Towards the end of the day, she also deals with Trixie, whom she has not visited during lunchtime, by telling her that Jill knows, and is terribly jealous. She makes out Jill is coming into the room with a knife and (screams)…..end of phone call. Trixie probably won’t be back.
Meantime, Mal/Jill has attempted to dress smartly – in a flowery tangerine top and leopard print trousers that go way beyond clashing. Makeup is likewise not too successful, but you have to give the poor man marks for effort. Sadly, he doesn’t spot that the vacuum is full to the brim, so to get it to work he takes it to pieces. Chrissie arrives at this point, and the vacuum gets put to one side so they can have a natter over a cup of coffee. Naturally, during this talk, Mal/Jill discovers that his blue-eyed boy, Dean, has been beating his daughter, the only woman he seems to prize. He also finds out later, from Sam, that lots of things have been kept from Dad, as otherwise they wouldn’t be able to do anything, to which Mal/Jill can only agree. He does at least carry out Jill’s promise the previous day to help Sam with his lines, and during this finds out about the crush on the English teacher. He’s much relieved.
Sam gives a demonstration of Thisbe’s final speech – a very moving one, depending on how it’s done. This time the emotions came across, and Mal/Jill and Chrissie are obviously engrossed. This is the time when Dean came in the previous day and checked the football results when the women were watching a TV show – totally inconsiderate. Today he comes in when Sam has finished Thisbe’s speech, and is so out of place, and so unpleasant, that Mal/Jill punches him, knocking him onto the couch. Hooray! Chrissie finally has her leverage over Dean, and she asks her family not to tell anyone Dean was knocked out by a woman, because if anyone’s going to tell his friends at the rugby club, it’ll be her.
Jill/Mal shocks Sam even more by offering to make him something to eat – like a lot of teenagers, he seems to be living off cans of fizzy drink – and as he leaves with his sandwich, he unwittingly expresses the reality of the situation by saying “Thanks, Mum”.
As they go to bed, Mal and Jill seem to be coming to terms with their situation, but as they go to sleep, with Jill/Mal counting sheep, they change back again, and now comes the biggest question of all. With all that these two characters have learned during the day, how have they changed? Will they stay changed? Their final coming together suggests that their relationship will be better than before, if not perfect, but then few of us can manage that.
The bulk of the comedy in this was clearly in the male/female conflicts and differences, and there were some tremendously funny bits throughout, mostly in the second half as the role reversal plot developed. I liked that Ayckbourn is tackling more serious subjects in his comedy, if that doesn’t sound too contradictory. Ayckbourn obviously respects women more than men – these women manage to do far more, and more effectively than the men, and it was lovely to see Jill/Mal gain in confidence when doing her husband’s job as well as a good deal of her own. I also found Sam an excellent character – well acted, and he gave us a vital perspective on the changes in both main characters, as well as a pivotal moment in the plot.
But the main acting credits must go to Terence Booth, stepping in to take over the part of Mal, and Liza Goddard as Jill. Both were excellent, especially in portraying the other’s character after the change. It was always clear to us who was who, and that made the whole thing work marvellously well.
The set was typical Ayckbourn – part of a kitchen, a bedroom, and a sitting room. Change the lighting, and voila! we’re in the furnishing showroom. Marvellous economy, and very effective.
© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me