Writer & Director: Alan Ayckbourn
Designer: Michael Holt
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Better Off Dead is one of those puzzling Alan Ayckbourn plays that leave one wishing for a second viewing to work out where exactly the focus lies and how seriously to take the proceedings – not that a second viewing would be any hardship, the play is unfailingly entertaining and full of surprises and a sort of bruised humanity. At the interval, the consensus was that it was a very jolly play until we realised that the themes were ageing, dementia and murder, but that’s Ayckbourn for you!
Algy Waterbridge is a veteran thriller writer whose books have gone out of fashion, but who still perseveres with novels about DCI Tommy Middlebrass of the North Yorkshire Constabulary, an old-school maverick who fits in with no police college system of keeping the law. Of course, in the tradition of odd couples of fictional cops, he is teamed with a young female sergeant who comes from Surrey (or is it Sussex? Tommy’s not quite sure). Sadly she doesn’t really understand the importance of sitting on a bar stool supping pints all night.
Algy sits in his summer-house writing novel number 33 (another idyllic garden setting from Michael Holt) while Tommy and his sidekick prowl around on the trail of a criminal long hated by Tommy. Algy becomes furiously intemperate with his harmless PA, his accent broadening and expletives booming out, so is this going to be about the takeover of the author by his own creation? Not entirely.
His wife, suffering from dementia, can hardly recognise him, so is it the study of a marriage surviving against the odds? An interview with an incompetent journalist leads to an accidental obituary which gives inaccurate information about Algy (and accurate information which he wished to conceal) – and, when his publisher zooms in his helicopter, we are in the harsh world of business. So what’s it all about, Algy? Suffice it to say that the title and various first half indicate that there will be a death, but who? Various suggestions surfaced in the interval, but Ayckbourn, of course, tricks us all.
The certainty is that Ayckbourn, once again, obtains superb performances all down the line from a cast of mostly old Ayckbourn hands. Suddenly rep seasons are back in fashion (locally Harrogate and Leeds), but the Stephen Joseph Theatre has long had the benefit of a sort of semi-rep season in the Summer with overlapping casts. Here Laurence Pears and Leigh Symonds are luxury casting in small one-scene parts, having stayed on from lead roles in Joking Apart. Symonds is gloriously comic as Gus Crewe, the journalist who can’t remember names and talks mainly about himself, and Pears is the self-important publisher in a scene cleverly poised between comedy and pathos – a rather funnier echo of Willie and Howard in Death of a Salesman.
Liz Jadav is the perfect model of ordinariness as the devoted, but independent-minded, PA Thelma Bostock; Eileen Battye gives Jessica, Algy’s wife, a charmingly self-possessed vagueness; Russell Dixon plays the boorishly self-confident Tommy Middlebrass to the hilt – shades of Andy Dalziel; Naomi Peterson is far more sensible than Tommy deserves as DS Gemma Price.
In the middle of it all is a terrific performance from Christopher Godwin as Algy, magnificent in his contempt for social niceties or his outrage at such slights as casting a Welshman as Middlebrass in a long-gone television series, bullying and hectoring, but human beneath it all – at least, when Tommy Middlebrass doesn’t take him over.
Runs until 6 October 2018 | Image: Contributed