A Small Family Business – July 2014

Experience: 9/10

By Alan Ayckbourn

Directed by Adam Penford

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Saturday 5th July 2014

Nice to see this one again. We saw the original National production in 1987, and the revival at Chichester in 2000; both were good, but this was probably our favourite. The individual performances were all excellent, and with several Ayckbourn regulars in the cast they brought out the humour perfectly. Overall I felt this was a lighter version of the play; the story became a bit darker towards the end, but it wasn’t as dark as either of the earlier productions.

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The Time Of My Life – January 2014

Experience: 7/10

Written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 24th January 2014

I’m not sure if we saw this play during the original run or on a later tour – the records are in our personal Bermuda Triangle – but I remembered the setup if not the details very soon after it started. The location was a restaurant, and the occasion a birthday party for wife and mother Laura. The rest of the party included her husband Gerry, her sons Glyn and Adam, Glyn’s pregnant wife Stephanie and Adam’s girlfriend/fiancée Maureen. The waiters, all played by Ben Porter, were part of the occasion too, as the family had been coming to that restaurant for many years.

The main table for the party was placed centrally towards the back of the stage on a raised level. There were steps down on either side of this platform and two more tables on the lower floor, one on each side of the stage. These were used for inserted scenes which showed us the relationships of the two sons and their respective partners, one pair going forward in time from the party and the other going back to their first meeting. It might sound confusing, but Ayckbourn is a master at taking the audience anywhere he wants them to go, and we’re always very willing to take these trips with him.

The opening scene was a jumble of dialogue, leading up to Maureen having to rush off to be sick. The party broke up shortly after this, with Glyn and Stephanie heading off home and Adam and Maureen leaving as well. Laura and Gerry stayed for a while longer, topping up the coffee and, as the arguments began and the revelations started to come out, topping up on brandy as well. Ernesto, the proprietor (also played by Ben Porter) joined them at one point for more alcohol and some drunken reminiscences, so when Laura and Gerry finally did leave they were both well over the limit.

The details of what happened after the party emerged through the intervening scenes with Glyn and Stephanie, and we saw them go through a number of changes in their relationship as well as hearing about the changes in the other characters’ lives. At the other table, Adam and Maureen’s relationship went back through their various meetings until their first encounter, when Adam mistook Maureen for a prostitute (it’s a long story). Both couples were haunted by a singing waiter (Ben Porter again) while Stephanie was constantly being encouraged to eat more by one of the other waiters. She kept refusing until an emotional event triggered a sudden desire to stuff her face with just about every dessert from the trolley!

The play ended with the beginning of the birthday party, and Ernesto showing Laura and Gerry to their table. It was an appropriate way to finish, similar in many ways to Time And The Conways, but this play isn’t as strong as Priestley’s. It was pleasant enough, and the actors all did good work, but the stories were a bit too predictable. Not Ayckbourn’s best piece, but as it turned out it was a very good companion to his new play Arrivals And Departures, and as always, it was fun to see the same group of actors playing very different roles.

© 2014 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

 

A Cricket Match – March 2013

Experience: 6/10

By Alan Ayckbourn

Directed by Patric Kearns

Company: Talking Scarlet

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Wednesday 13th March 2013

This is a version of Ayckbourn’s Intimate Exchanges; we’ve seen four others before, so we were keen to see how this one played out. The weather problems may have contributed to the small attendance, but even so the cast gave us a good performance, and it was an enjoyable enough evening. I found myself wishing for a full-on production sometime, with all the parts played by different actors, but that’s just a pipe dream for the moment. It would also be nice to have an Intimate Exchanges marathon sometime, but again I’ll have to wait.

This version took us down the route of an affair between Celia and Miles. Miles was married to Rowena, a free spirit type, while Celia was married to Toby, Miles’ best friend, who owed his job as headmaster of a local school to Miles’ role as chairman of the board of governors. Miles contrived to see Celia alone for dinner – she thought it would be a foursome – and made his play, ending up in the shed with his trousers round his ankles. Their affair was common gossip, and while Miles eventually returned to Rowena, Celia was stuck with an unsympathetic Toby.

The third act gave us the cricket match. It’s difficult with only two actors to show us all the necessary characters, but these two did very well. I did find myself distracted by the lack of accurate scoring at times – always a drawback when putting cricket on stage – but the development of the relationships was pretty clear and by this time the audience had warmed up a bit so there was more laughter as well. Stephen Beckett was particularly good when it came to Miles’ hesitant and bumbling way of talking; his ‘blah, blah, blah’ noises when fast forwarding through the speech he was rehearsing were very funny.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Absurd Person Singular – August 2012

7/10

Written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn

A Stephen Joseph Theatre/CFT co-production

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Thursday 30th August 2012

Surprisingly, given that this production was directed by Ayckbourn himself, we didn’t find it quite as funny as a previous outing (Oct 2008). It was still good though, and great fun to see the cast of Surprises playing completely different characters.

Part of the difference tonight lay in the casting. While everyone was perfectly cast for the other play, and most were similarly good in this, I felt that Ayesha Antoine wasn’t convincing as the suicidal Eva in the second act. This was a great pity as that part is central to the comedy of the whole scene; she may not say a word until she starts singing at the end of the scene but her presence is crucial, and tonight it wasn’t strong enough for me. And for once the in-the-round space actually worked against the humour, as the focus was harder to maintain with bits of furniture and the building getting in the way.

Even so, we enjoyed the second act, and the darker aspects of the characters certainly came out strongly tonight. There was less business with the gin bottle in the third act, but that act is always less funny than the others as the characters mostly continue their downward spiral.

The sets were beautifully evocative of the three couples. The first was replete with aspirational Formica and linoleum, the second full of painted wood and raffia seats with wooden floorboards, while the final act had a stone flagged floor, an Aga and mpre upmarket wooden furniture. The costumes matched the sets, with the aspirational couple’s clothes improving in each scene. Not a bad production then, though not the best we’ve seen.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Surprises – August 2012 (2)

8/10

Written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn

Stephen Joseph Theatre and CFT co-production

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Tuesday 28th August 2012

No surprises tonight, though the performances had all tightened up as the cast have become familiar with the Minerva space. The opening act was funnier – we laughed more – and although there were a few gaps again after the first interval, the rest of us clearly enjoyed ourselves, including the chap who sang along to the songs and completed the actors’ lines for them!

Some things I forgot to mention last time: each act began and ended with a song. The first one was Keep Young And Beautiful, a scratchy version suggesting an old recording. The others weren’t scratchy, but were old-style crooner ballads, don’t know which ones. I think they ended each act with the same song, but I’m not sure. The caption on the statue’s plinth was “Venus No 2”.

I wasn’t entirely sure last time if Sylvia’s crush was on Jan or Lorraine; I assumed from later developments that it had been Jan, but this time round it wasn’t so obvious.  The final scenes with the virtual reality and real characters both on stage at the same time were clearer tonight. Perhaps they’d changed their timing slightly, or perhaps it was the different angle, but I was aware of the real people saying their lines first, and the avatars following them. Later, when the couple were telling each other who they really were, the avatar or the real character would stay silent, miming the line at the same time as their counterpart spoke the line. This allowed their growing relationship to be highlighted without distracting us with too much repetition; after all, they were each moving past the need for a false persona to represent them in a fantasy world. Their final meeting, huddled together against the rain, was quite moving, and I had to wipe away the moisture from my eyes before I applauded. Lovely.

From the post-show, I gathered that in the Stephen Joseph Theatre the front row are practically sitting on the stage, so the cast enjoyed having a little more room in the Minerva. A lot of the discussion got bogged down in what the play was about, which I didn’t find so interesting, but the cast seem to be having a good time down here, which is nice. As often happens, I thought of my ‘burning’ questions afterwards – too late!

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Surprises – August 2012

7/10

By Alan Ayckbourn

Directed by Alan Ayckbourn

CFT and Stephen Joseph Theatre co-production

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Wednesday 8th August 2012

Although this play has been performed already at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, this was its first performance at the Minerva, and it will probably need one or two more performances to fully settle down. Not that there were many problems tonight; the performances were excellent as usual, and despite a tricky storyline which involved time travel and a fifty year gap between time periods, I think I followed it all pretty well.

The first act started with Keep Young & Beautiful played over darkness. The lights came up on a set containing a round bed with a purple cover, pink heart-shaped cushions, a few toys, a chair, a skipping rope – clearly a young girl’s bedroom. In the opening scene the father, Franklin, was trying to talk his daughter Grace into dumping her unsuitable boyfriend Titus (known as Tim to begin with). We soon found out that Franklin was arranging for his lawyer to bribe the boyfriend to stay away from Grace. Shortly after Franklin left his daughter, we were introduced to the time travel element, with Titus coming back from the future to take her back with him, using the very device which he and his partner Fizz had built with the bribery money. After freaking out at having a strange man appear in her bedroom (and who wouldn’t?) she turned his offer down as she didn’t fancy their chances with a fifty year age difference. Instead, she decided to stop the Titus and Fizz in her time from taking the bribe money and/or giving her up. That way, she reckoned they would be together in fifty years’ time anyway. Another visit from the future suggested this plan hadn’t worked as she expected. Interval.

As well as introducing the characters and situation, plus the time travel aspects, there was plenty of humour to warm us all up. With so much new technology in this near future setting, Grace had been given a brain implant to stop her swearing, and the humour lay in us recognising what she wanted to say, but couldn’t. The present day emphasis on presentation over substance took a few hits as well, but mainly this act prepared us for what was to come.

During the interval, the next set took shape: an office space with a geometric carpet, desk, seats and a low table. The colour scheme was red and black, with grey stripes on the carpet. To one side of the stage was a Henry Moore-like sculpture on a plinth – don’t remember what the caption said. In the front right corner was a round platform with lights and the name ‘HIPRO’ on the front, which turned out to be a device for holographic phone calls. All the sets were arranged on chequerboard flooring.

The second act showed us the arrangements for the bribery meeting from the lawyer’s point of view and involved a scatty blond secretary, Sylvia, who has a crush on a security and maintenance android called Jan. He has a crush on their lawyer boss, Lorraine, while Lorraine’s cheating celebrity chefedian (combination chef and comedian) husband kept calling her on the HIPRO to try and talk her out of a divorce, which thanks to the prenup would be disastrous for him. It was also Lorraine’s birthday, and all of Jan’s attempts to impress her with presents failed miserably – having just discovered her husband’s latest infidelity, she was in no mood to be reminded that she’d turned sixty.

The bribery meeting took place off stage, and this time Fizz was happy to take the deal but Titus said no, so what will happen in act three? With the meeting being elsewhere, Franklin waited in Lorraine’s office to hear the result, and found himself unexpectedly giving relationship advice to an android. The expensive bottle of brandy he suggested as a present worked better for Jan than anything else; after a few swigs Lorraine gave in to her need for a cuddle, and Jan was the only ‘person’ available. Result.

The third set had two office spaces, with the HIPRO in a different corner, different geometrically shaped rugs, two desks and chairs. This was the future, and we learned that Titus was now working for Franklin, running the company that made the time travel device which Fizz developed. He and Grace were still married, but in name only. She was living on Mars (or the moon?) with her father and still behaving like a teenage girl, even though she was over sixty. Titus may have been successful, but as the boss’s son-in-law he wasn’t respected, whereas in the version of the future where he’d taken the money and left Grace he had been running his own business. This was what he kept trying to put right by frequent trips back in time, but he kept missing Grace and the technological problem was that with each stop in that time zone the window closed a bit more.

Finally he and Grace accepted they would divorce, and feeling extremely lonely he turned to another person whom he’d met through a virtual reality sex program. We had seen them in a clinch at the beginning of this act, interrupted by Franklin calling Titus from Mars. The other person was none other than Sylvia, Lorraine’s secretary from act two, who was still working for the same firm of lawyers and still on her own. A visit from Jan and Lorraine, now one hundred and ten, made it clear she would have to find love elsewhere and she also turned to her virtual reality partner in response to her own loneliness. So there was a kind of happy ending, with two people actually meeting up in person, liking each other and starting out on what may be a wonderful relationship for them both (but this is Ayckbourn, so don’t expect happy ever after).

          The plot seems much more complex when I have to write it down; Ayckbourn is such a good writer that we can follow the twists and turns quite easily as we’re watching the play without realising how complicated the plot is. While there was plenty of humour all the way through, this seems to be more of an ideas play with lots of thought-provoking questions to ponder. The main story was complemented by additional elements such as the time tourists, a pair of Essex ladies from the look of them, and the android bartender in the virtual reality bar where Titus and Sylvia went to get hooked up. Sarah Parks played the bartender and also Lorraine, doing a great job in both parts, while Richard Stacey, who also played Fabiano, Titus’s avatar in virtual reality, was superb as Jan. He played the android’s movements perfectly, not that I’ve ever seen one, and gave us some of the funniest moments of the play. Ayesha Antoine, who played Winnie in My Wonderful Day (Jan 2010), was both Grace and Seraphina, Sylvia’s avatar, and did a fine job in each, while Laura Doddington’s Sylvia was a superb performance; her crush on Jan was obvious to us, though not to him. Bill Champion (Franklin) and Ben Porter (Titus) completed the cast, and although their parts had fewer laughs, they were just as good. Alan Ayckbourn was present at tonight’s performance, so as we’ve booked to see this one again it will be interesting to see what, if anything, changes.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Neighbourhood Watch – January 2012

7/10

Written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn

Stephen Joseph Theatre Company

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday 23rd January 2012

This was an enjoyable evening which ended rather unfortunately. A memorial statue which was meant to be revealed at the end refused to drop into place – looked like it was hanging the wrong way up – and so the cast had to take their bows without the punch line having been delivered, a real shame for them after their hard work. And it was hard work with this audience; we both felt, despite it being one of Ayckbourn’s darker offerings, that there was more humour in this play than the audience response indicated. It may be that the subject matter was a bit too close to home for comfort; we noticed that several jokes about Daily Mail readers received a lukewarm chuckle, but a similar disparaging remark about Guardian readers a few lines later got a huge laugh.

The play covered current concerns about security, and the trend towards high-security compounds for the ‘posh’ folk to protect them from the ‘yobs’ from the sink estates. We followed the experiences of a brother and sister, newly arrived at the Bluebell Hill development, from their housewarming party to the memorial service for the brother, Martin, after his sad demise while fighting to protect the standard of life for the local residents. The opening scene, and what would have been the last had it worked, were set at the memorial service; the rest of the scenes were in chronological order.

The set was straightforward. There were black walls at the back with gaps right and left, and two curved sofas on either side covered in a plain fabric with large flower outlines and with three matching cushions on each. In the centre was a fake circular fireplace with a flicker effect which they turned on whenever there were guests, and a large rim which doubled as a table. There were also two side tables on the audience side of the sofas. An extra chair was brought on for some of the meetings, and there was carpet on the floor up to the patio door on the right, where a section of the stage had been tiled to show the outside area. They acted the patio door, thank goodness.

The characters were a lovely mixed bunch. Martin and Hilda, brother and sister, were very prim and proper, with a strong moral and religious streak. Actually she was much more rigid than he was, and during the course of the play he even developed a relationship with another woman and planned to leave his sister. His death shortly afterwards meant she could ignore this inconvenient fact in her eulogy, while freeing her up to develop her own unconventional relationship.

Rod was one of their neighbours who was retired from some kind of security job, and was positively rabid about the threats they faced from the scum who lived in the estate nearby, across a field. He had even forced his way into someone’s house to retrieve a hedge trimmer which he knew this man had stolen, searching the place while the man was there. He eventually found his hedge trimmer and walked off with it, only to find himself in trouble with the police! His hedge trimmer was now in custody as it was evidence, and he was livid about the whole incident. He certainly showed us the potential for violence and law-breaking from the self-righteous, aggrieved middle classes, who feel everyone else is out to get them.

Dorothy was another retired neighbour who used to work on the local paper. We were led to believe she was a reporter, so there was a good laugh when she finally admitted that she worked on small ads. She was a good source for the local gossip which allowed us to find out a lot about the situation and the people, and she took on the media work for their neighbourhood watch scheme when it attracted lots of media attention.

Luther and Magda were the next door neighbours. He was a bully and a wife beater, she was a woman who had been abused from an early age and who ended up staying with Martin and Hilda for protection. Luther was the one person who spoke up against the rather extreme measures taken by the neighbourhood watch committee, and he was also the Guardian reader, but he seemed a bit underwritten compared to the others. Magda was a musician who also gave lessons, and her description of her early experiences was quite hard to listen to. Her final choices indicated that she’d found another strong character to take charge of her life.

Gareth and Amy were the final two characters. He was an older man who liked tinkering in his shed, but his main motivation for supporting the neighbourhood watch was that his wife, Amy, was a total slut, sleeping around with every man on the development regardless of their marital status. She’d married Gareth on the rebound, and he’d been regretting it ever since. It did give him an interest in various forms of public punishment, including the stocks, the pillory, scold’s bridle, etc., and the committee made good use of his woodworking talents and this interest. Amy wore very fitting dresses with very high hems with red hair and lots of makeup. She was very interested to find that Martin and Hilda were siblings rather than married, and we weren’t surprised to find Martin’s attitudes changing a bit over the course of the play.

The housewarming scene led to the inaugural meeting to set up the neighbourhood watch scheme. When the police were unable to attend to give advice, and someone threw Martin’s garden gnome through the window, destroying it completely, Martin decided they should go it alone and include some people who weren’t keen to be involved if the police were part of it. These turned out to be the local crime boss and his two thuggish sons; patrols were very effective and crime was slashed, but their methods were rather drastic, and when a house on the estate was burned down when they went to ‘have a word’ with its occupant, the police turned up at the Bluebell Hill security gatehouse demanding to get in to arrest the two sons.

After making sure that the stocks weren’t visible, Martin authorised the security chief (Rod) to radio the gatehouse to let them in. Unfortunately, they only caught one of the sons, which meant that an angry armed sociopath was hiding within the security fence, waiting to get his revenge for being shopped to the police. Fortunately he was too stupid to count properly, so it was the house next door to Martin and Hilda’s that went up in flames, and it was when the fire service and police were trying to deal with that problem that Martin, armed only with a statue of Jesus, went out into his garden and met his fate.

The final scene showed us the aftermath through the preparations for the memorial service, and then a curtain came down to shield the fireplace from our view while they lowered the statue chosen to commemorate Martin’s life. Being so close, we could see a bit of it, and at first it looked like a giant dildo which made us laugh to ourselves. But then we realised it was the hat of a large garden gnome, about three feet high I would guess, and gold coloured, which had slipped onto its side and just wouldn’t come down onto the fireplace. A stage hand came on at the back and realised he couldn’t do anything, so they just had to leave things there and take their bows. We felt for them; it was clearly meant to be a funny punchline as Hilda’s opening speech had claimed this was not only a fitting memorial, but also a symbol of much greater and higher things. A garden gnome would have been very funny, but alas not tonight.

The performances were all fine, and there was plenty to enjoy, but the audience, like the gnome, weren’t as cooperative as we would have liked.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me