Writer: Alan Ayckbourn
Director: Alan Ayckbourn
Designer: Kevin Jenkins
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Alan Ayckbourn is a master of tricks with time and place – and also of the joyous occasion gone wrong. In his 83rd play there are no tricks with place, except the stylish and fascinating changes of furniture in Kevin Jenkins’ ingenious set, but the four acts move backwards in time through none too successful birthday celebrations.
There is nothing schematic about Ayckbourn’s approach. The jumps in time are unevenly spaced between “roundabout now” and 38 years ago, and the four birthdays are of different people, one of them a character who doesn’t even appear in the play.
As always Ayckbourn delights in wrong-footing his audience. The play begins with the 80th birthday of retired coach driver Micky. No doubt the 80-year-old playwright takes a mischievous pleasure in presenting him as sourly decrepit, unmoving in his chair, having to be helped to the toilet in urgent need by his long-suffering wife, Meg. Russell Dixon gives a richly comic turn, railing against the world in Alan Bennett-ish tones and we expect that the play is going to let us see how the couple – Jemma Churchill’s Meg showing hints of a temper beneath her tending to Micky’s every demand – arrived at their present state.
Not so. One of Micky’s obsessions is the voracious sexual appetite of his son, Adrian, and despite Meg’s protests, he insists on warning Grace, Adrian’s new girlfriend, that he is dangerous. Adrian has a sort of Tartuffe-like build-up, much talked of before he appears, and this pleasant, earnest, shy and gauche figure is, indeed, as the programme says, “an unlikely Lothario”.
And so the focus shifts from Micky and Meg to Adrian and the women in his life. Meg has a memorably explosive 60th birthday, but by the time we reach the shorter sharper scenes of Act 2 – Adrian “celebrating” his 30th and, as a 17-year-old, trying to avoid his sister’s party – the foreground is very much Adrian’s attempts to deal with situations he doesn’t really understand.
Jamie Baughan and Naomi Petersen complete an excellent cast with two contrasting performances, each equally impressive in a totally different way. At the centre of the action as Adrian, Baughan remains convincingly understated, his situation changing, but the ineffectually optimistic 55-year-old of the opening scene reflected in the 17-year-old struggling with calculus and the demands of his sister’s friend Hope. Petersen, on the other hand, seizes the opportunities for a multi-role tour de force as Grace, Adrian’s church-going girlfriend, all nervously tinkling laughter, Faith, his depressed wife, Charity, the cheerfully down-to-earth call girl and mousy school-girl Hope (Sir Alan likes his little jokes with names.)
As usual, Ayckbourn manages to come up with a play that is simultaneously amusing and subtly subversive. In this case it takes a few minutes’ reflection to realise that two of the most vividly alive characters and the main motors for the plot never even appear: Adrian’s selfish and dominating sister and his naughty uncle, the black sheep of the family.
Runs until September 28, 2019 | Image: Contributed