Taking Steps – March 2010


By Alan Ayckbourn

Directed by Alan Ayckbourn

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Thursday 25th March 2010

What joy! Not only a great performance of one of Ayckbourn’s funniest plays (as with Shakespeare’s ‘problem’ plays, the description ‘funniest’ seems to apply to the vast majority of Ayckbourn’s work), but the master himself was there at the post-show, answering questions with patience, kindness and humour. A great afternoon.

This particular play was first performed back in the 70’s, and because of the way it’s set up, it only works in the round, as with the Stephen Joseph theatre itself. So the London transfer to a proscenium arch didn’t work too well, and, knowing this, Sam Walters persuaded Alan Ayckbourn to let him put it on again at the Orange Tree, a space only slightly smaller than its Scarborough birthplace.

The plot of this farce is unbelievably complex, but as usual Ayckbourn has woven a rich tapestry of humour with a fairly straightforward situation and a cast of complete misfits. Lizzy, an ex-dancer, is married to Rowley, a successful, sorry, very successful businessman who’s in buckets. And bin liners. If you’ve got rubbish to dispose of, he’s your man. Only he’s not going to be Lizzy’s man much longer, as she’s in the process of writing a note for her husband to tell him she’s gone for good. If only her handwriting was clearer. Her brother, Mark, a man who could take gold in 2012 if boring people to sleep was an Olympic sport, attempts to read it out, and we were in fits of laughter as he tried to figure out what she was saying. ‘Courage’ did especially badly, coming out first as ‘cabbage’, then as ‘carnage’. Lizzy takes so long packing that Rowley’s back home before she can make her escape, and she has to wait for a suitable moment to get away, Mark having already left to pick up his ex-fiancée Kitty from the station.

When Rowley does get back, he’s confronted by Mr Watson, who’s been sent by Rowley’s solicitor with the contracts for the purchase of the big Victorian house he’s currently renting from Mr A. Not that Mr Watson explained his presence so concisely. He’s one of those characters who drifts along on sporadic eddies of words; if you’re lucky, they make a coherent sentence. Few people were lucky this afternoon. Mr A also turns up, hardly recognisable in his biker’s gear and helmet, and he, Rowley and Mr Watson go for a tour of the house. Mr A is a builder, and Rowley wants to talk through the massive amount of work that needs to be done.

Mark arrives back with Kitty, and leaves her in the attic, where she also decides to leave a note and run off. By this time, Lizzy’s note has been found, and after an initial misunderstanding, Rowley learns he’s been abandoned. Mr A leaves without getting the money he needs to keep his business afloat, and Rowley persuades Mr Watson to keep him company, just for the night. With the usual awkwardness of characters in farce, Mark ends up in one of the ‘brown’ rooms, Rowley goes to bed in the attic, thereby trapping Kitty in a cupboard for the night, and Mr Watson spends the night in the master bedroom. When Lizzy returns, having decided to make a go of it with Rowley, she’s completely unaware that it’s not her husband she’s getting into bed with, while Mr Watson, believing the story of the ghost of a prostitute who spends the night with a man who then dies the next morning, is horrified when this ‘ghost’ materialises next to him. And that’s just the first half!

The second half involves suspected suicide attempts, Mr Watson being discovered in bed with two different women (on separate occasions), a near strangling, the purchase of the house, and yet more bids for freedom. And it was all huge fun, and well appreciated by the audience.

Now for the set. We sat at the left end of the first row far left. To our left was an upright chair, then a dressing table with stool, then the corner was filled by the folding bed in the attic which was just in front of the cupboard door. Next to that was a bedside table with a small light, then the sitting room sofa with coffee table in front, then a space for a doorway, then a bedside table next to the master bedroom double bed which was on the diagonal, then another doorway, then another armchair from the sitting room, then the third doorway right by us. To our right, and along the far side, there were banisters with strips of green carpet beside the set, and these had brass strips across them to represent stairs. From the ceiling hung two lights, a fancy one for the sitting room and a plain one that didn’t work (no bulb) for the attic. The action took place on all three levels, often at the same time, and the actors did a lovely jogging movement to indicate that they were going up and down stairs. The amazing thing is that it worked so well – we always knew where people were, and even when the set was crowded they managed to keep out of each other’s way. Alan Ayckbourn commented on this during the post-show, explaining that the actors’ movements had to be planned carefully so they didn’t all try to go through the same doorway at the same time.

Other gems from the post-show: Ayckbourn doesn’t do rewrites. Actually he did one for this production – we were the first to hear the changed word! The script referred to Foxtons as a business within the world of the play. As it’s also the name of a local estate agent, he changed it to Scanstons for this run. He also told us that when he was starting out, not yet twenty years old, everyone thought they knew how to make his plays work better, even the theatre cleaners. He had to work hard to keep things as he wanted them. Once he was successful, and got a reputation, people started taking the text too seriously, even memorising the misprints. He’d had to correct someone when they read a line wrong because the text had a mistake in it.

He was asked if he’d ever suffered from writers block. He told us that for a short time after his stroke, a couple of weeks say, he hadn’t had any ideas in his head at all. As he works by letting ideas develop in the back of his mind, sometimes for years, this was a frightening experience. But one morning he woke up, and an idea was floating around in there, so he knew he was alright.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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