Adapted by Alan Ayckbourn from a comedy by Will Evans and Valentine
Directed by Joe Harmston
Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
Date: Thursday 12th February 2009
Set: standard 20s/30s style living room of the well-to-do. Double doors on the left, fireplace to the right, French windows centre back, with a bit of garden terrace. Sofa centre left, and other chairs and tables round the place or brought on as required.
The set may have been well-to-do, but the couple living in the house certainly weren’t. Aubrey and Louise lived on credit, and had run up so many debts that the husband was due to be declared bankrupt in a week. Into this situation comes a solicitor with news of Aubrey’s brother’s death, and the information that said brother had left him a life interest in his estate, while the capital reverts to a cousin, George Maitland, on Aubrey’s death. It doesn’t take long for the impecunious couple to realise that the life interest, although amounting to several thousands of pounds a year, would soon be gobbled up by the many creditors they’d accrued. Cue a remark or two about the criminality of lending people money and encouraging them to get into debt – I would have thought more people would have laughed. Anyway, the wife is soon hatching a plot for Aubrey to die, then reappear as cousin George, who is believed to have died many years ago in Mexico, though proof has never been forthcoming. All you need to know now is that the butler, Sprules, has overheard part of this plot and snaffles a copy of the will, and that an old school chum of Louise’s, Jean, is due for a visit, at which point she confides that she was also married, briefly, to a man who died out in South America somewhere, and the next two acts pretty much write themselves.
First off, Aubrey reappears disguised as cousin George. Sprules believes this to be his brother Henery, whom he has inveigled to play the part of the missing cousin so they can get the money, and a lot of the humour in these later acts was down to Sprules and his intended, the maid, attempting to communicate with “Henery” using the agreed signals – stroking the elbow, tugging the ear, tapping the nose, and, if all else fails, dropping something, like a tray. There was a lovely scene where Sprules, hidden behind one of the double doors, throws a series of larger and larger trays through the other door in a desperate attempt to alert his brother to danger. Later, when he believes Henery is dead, he’s so caught up in his grief that he completely ignores the real Henery’s signals. It was great fun, and Sprules was beautifully played by Christopher Timothy.
However, neither Henery nor anyone else is dead yet. Once Louise discovers that Jean is married to cousin George, and that Aubrey seems all too ready to get cracking on the honeymoon, she has to think of some other solution to the problem. The solicitor (I assume he’s charging for all these trips from London) informs her that she’s the residuary legatee in the original will – gets all the dosh if George dies first – so she tells Aubrey to go off to the river and drown, as George, then come back later as someone completely different, and then he can marry her, the rich widow.
You wouldn’t believe how difficult it is to get a stretch of river all to yourself for a quick spot of drowning, but they manage it in the end. Naturally, Sprules is devastated at losing his brother, and the plot is further thickened when another George Maitland turns up, this time Henery in disguise. He’s also very pleased to find he’s got an attractive wife along with the money, and doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of the situation. While he’s chasing Jean round the garden, another George Maitland arrives, this time the real one. With Aubrey reappearing, disguised as a monk, Brother Brown, the final act tests Louise’s wits to the limit. She finally decides that Aubrey will have to come back to life (he was so dazed by the explosion that supposedly carried him off the first time, that he’s been wandering round the area for weeks not knowing who or where he was), only for the much-travelled solicitor to inform them all that the estate, now realised, comes to the grand sum of one pound, a few shillings and some pence. Still, at least Aubrey and Louise, and George and Jean have all been happily reunited, as have Sprules and Henery.
We’d seen this before at the National, over twenty years ago, and neither of us could remember it at all. This version left me with two impressions – that the humour was mainly in the performance, and that even with Alan Ayckbourn’s updates for the National production, the piece was still pretty dated. The cast did good work, and we did enjoy ourselves, but either this production didn’t do the piece justice, or it had reached the historical curiosity stage. It’s surprising, given the current financial situation, that the play didn’t come across better, but that’s theatre for you.
© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me