Writer/director Alan Ayckbourn
Designer Michael Holt
Reviewer Ron Simpson
Confusions would seem to be a useful generic title for Alan Ayckbourn’s plays of the mid-1970s when it was first produced, shortly after The Norman Conquests and with the crazy complications of Intimate Exchanges only a few years in the future. However, here the Scarborough Master doesn’t go for intricate structuring: Confusions is quite a simple affair by his standards, five short plays – different in style, all within the definition of “comedies” – each linked to the previous by a loose connection.
The success of the evening depends on the variety of humour and the fact that the production triumphantly fulfils Ayckbourn’s original intent, “to provide a showcase for the performers” and leave the audience surprised at curtain call that there are only five actors!
The most successful free-standing play follows the interval. Gosforth’s Fete should have had – and maybe has had – an independent life as a one-act farce. Nobody has a surer hand on the tiller than Ayckbourn when it comes to the affectionately vicious presentation of the disasters of a small-town fete or pageant – and so it proves in this early example! The always excellent Russell Dixon as the desperately enthusiastic publican in charge (or not) of the fete turns in a comic tour de force, but has to share the limelight with the tea urn, the weather and, above all, the PA system, plus the remaining four actors, all nailing their characters gleefully!
After that where is there to go? Ayckbourn opts for a downbeat ending, all five actors taking turns with isolated monologues on park benches, an appropriate coda to an evening that has always had as a sub-text the theme of communication, compulsive or accidental or non-existent.
Before the interval the plays are more balanced and more integrated. In Mother Figure a young mother is so consumed by her rôle that she refuses to answer the phone to her absent husband and infantilises her neighbours who call in to see if she needs help. Drinking Companion follows her working-away husband to his hotel and his creepily inept attempts at seduction, while Between Mouthfuls stays in the same hotel as the waiter attempts to focus two warring couple’s attention on the menu and the wine-list.
As Sir Alan insisted, it’s all about the transformative skill of the actors and, with the aid of his typically subtle and supportive direction, all deliver. Interestingly, there is no set allocation of parts and the present distribution is different from 1974, but all make light of changes of style, delivery, appearance and even age. Elizabeth Boag has a terrific sequence of neurotic mother, sensible friend and strident grande dame in the first half while Emma Manton goes from mousily neighbourly to uneasily acquiescent to aggressively confessional before ending up as Gosforth’s sweetly perky inamorata. Stephen Billington proves they amuse who only stand and wait and has his moments as a scout leader sick with jealousy and sherry and Richard Stacey seizes the chance to be entertainingly boring in four different characters, notably the hotel lounge Lothario and an ineffectual vicar.
Everything about the production keeps it simple, with Michael Holt’s pleasingly functional designs making great use of adaptable furniture and a slick stage crew.
Runs Until: 26th September 2015