By Alan Ayckbourn
Directed by Matthew Warchus
Venue: Old Vic Theatre
Date: Wednesday 1st October 2008
I’ve been very aware of the changes to the RSC’s theatres in Stratford, and I’m looking forward to seeing their new main house when it opens, but although I must have read that the Old Vic was being transformed for these Ayckbourn plays, I didn’t register just how major the change would be. It’s what I’ve wanted to see in these old-fashioned London theatres for years, and now it’s happened, if only on a temporary basis. Jubilate!
As it happens, we were probably sitting in much the same place as we normally do, but this time we were only a few feet from the stage (and probably sitting on top of our heads). A big circular platform stood in the front of the auditorium, with seats on two levels behind it, where the stage used to be, and a few seats round the side. The bulk of the seats were in the usual place, but the stalls were lifted higher and raked right up to the circle balcony. We were in the second row, just to the right of the centre aisle, and on the same level as the front row, so other people’s heads were always going to be feature of this performance. The seats were mainly the old ones with new covers, so comfort hadn’t increased, although the leg room had definitely improved.
The set was intriguing. Above the platform hung another large circle, about 3 or 4 feet above it. On both sides was a model of the play’s setting – a country location, with a large old house in the middle, and lots of garden and countryside around it. At the start, this disc rose up to form a high ceiling, and the house in the middle was highlighted, so we could see where we were. The disc also had a clock projected onto it between scenes, to show the passage of time.
The living room was the only set required for this play. There was a fireplace just to our right with a large rug in front of it, a chair, table and telephone further round (anti-clockwise), a space for a doorway to the rest of the house, then the sofa and coffee table, then the door to the garden, then another table with the record player. All the furnishings were 1970s, which made several of them bang up to date, retro being so popular.
There are six characters whom we see over the three plays. Annie lives in the house, looking after her bitch-from-hell mother, and having a puttering sort of relationship with Tom, the local vet. Tom is a rather bland character, who makes magnolia paint look interesting; he’s taken solid and dependable to new lows. With all the pressure she’s under, Annie had arranged to go away secretly for the weekend with her brother-in-law Norman, who’s married to her sister Ruth. This weekend falls through, for reasons which become apparent in one of the other plays, and so Annie and Norman and Tom are all at the house over the weekend. As mother still needed to be taken care of, Annie’s brother Reg and his wife Sarah have also turned up, minus their kids, so it’s a family affair, especially when Ruth arrives following a drunken phone call from Norman.
Not only does Norman get drunk, he also indulges in his favourite pastime of seducing every available woman he can find, which this weekend means that both of his sisters-in-law and his wife are the targets for his charm. Thankfully, mother-in-law seems to be immune. He also gives advice to Tom about how to deal with Annie, and although it seems designed to break them up completely, it actually seems to work, and Annie ends up happier with their relationship than before, at least at the end of this play. Sarah, on the other hand, goes from being a neurotic control freak who can’t stand Norman, nor anyone else, it seems, to a more relaxed happy individual who’s thinking of taking a weekend break in Bournemouth. Her husband recognises the signs. I expect fireworks in the garden as they leave.
They were still in previews, and I did get a sense of some hesitation occasionally, but overall the performances were excellent. Stephen Mangan was a wonderfully shaggy Norman, not as repulsive as some I’ve seen, but certainly immature enough. His comic timing was well to the fore, as in the long pause before he produces the word “magnetic” to describe himself. Amelia Bullimore as his wife, Ruth, does a fine job. There’s less for her to do, of course, as her character doesn’t turn up till the second half, but I got a sense of her focus on her job, and the lack of time for Norman which may partly explain his behaviour. But she also allows herself to be seduced back into bed with him, although this time it’s the rug in front of the fire that they use.
Amanda Root was excellent as Sarah, with nostrils flaring and eyes wide with panic whenever there’s the slightest threat of someone or something edging out of her control. The change to the relaxed version of Sarah was good, and I liked the way Reg finally cottoned on when his wife started talking about taking a weekend break somewhere, on her own. Reg knew all about the abortive weekend with Annie, and wasn’t too stupid to realise what had happened. Paul Ritter played Reg very well, especially as he’s one of the ‘dull’ characters, completely obsessed with developing board games that no-one else understands. Especially Tom.
Tom was played by Ben Miles, and he got across all of Tom’s ….. aarhm ….. well, indecisiveness, I suppose. It was beautifully done. Jessica Hynes, as Annie, was more feisty than some I’ve seen, but still had that depressed air of someone who can’t seem to get away from the burden of looking after her mother. I realised this time that it’s partly her mother’s attitude to clothes and femininity that leads Annie to dress and act the way she does; she doesn’t want to turn into a slapper like her mother. Mind you, she does scrub up well in the second half.
I also got a strong impression of the family unit in this production. It can be complicated working out how all these characters are related at first, but this time I was clear from an early stage. When the three siblings were together, I felt they behaved like brother and sisters, although at that point the heads in front were getting in the way a lot. It’s always so tantalising to see one of these plays and then have to wait for the others, but we couldn’t manage an all-day session , so we’ll just have to be patient. If they’re all up to this standard, we’re in for a treat.
© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me