Writer: Alan Ayckbourn
Director: Robin Herford
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
The smallest of choices can have immense impact on our lives. Each day we make a series of seemingly inconsequential decisions that ultimately lead us down a particular route.
Alan Ayckbourn has always been fascinated by consequence and fate and his epic cycle Intimate Exchanges explores this to the extreme. Over a series of eight plays, each with two potential endings, there’s 16 variations on offer. The route each play takes decided by the seeming innocuous decision by Celia to smoke or not smoke a cigarette in the opening seconds of the play.
In its entirety there are 31 scenes, 10 characters and over 16 hours of dialogue – all played by just two actors.
Over the course of 2013, Colchester Mercury will be staging four of the eight major plays in the series, kicking off with Events on a Hotel Terrace.
Here, headmaster’s wife Celia decides to smoke that pivotal cigarette, setting her on a course of tangled relationships, tea and cucumber sandwiches.
There’s frustration from Celia; her headmaster husband Toby is more interested in a bottle of whisky than her and, when the school caretaker Lionel pops round to do some gardening, there’s more than the garden shed being decluttered.
Lionel seems to offer Celia a perfect escape, a trained master baker whose potential is being wasted cleaning school corridors. Celia sees a risky but tantalising alternative life. When Lionel’s credentials though prove as crazy as the paving he’s laying for her Celia’s dreams begin to unravel.
Aykbourn’s writing always works best when reflecting the everyday and here his structure is deceptively simple, yet engaging. We move from the everyday to the more surreal and back again with such pace that we hang on every single twist and turn.
Director Robin Herford has an intimate knowledge of Intimate Exchanges, having been in the original cast of the production. The knowledge of the piece is evident on stage as he paces the piece perfectly, building tension where required but never overplaying the comedy, instead letting it grow organically out of the situation.
Ruth Gibson and Gwynfor Jones rise magnificently to the challenge of playing the multiple characters. There’s always a danger in doubling rôles that the differential between characters isn’t clear but no such problems here. A series of rapid costume and wig changes help to create the illusion of a much larger cast of course but Gibson and Jones ensure that each character is markedly different. It’s an interesting sideline watching fellow audiences for that moment they twig that it is in fact only a cast of two providing these multiple characters.
Some scene transitions on Michael Holt’s adaptable set need to speed up as the run continues as they occasionally seem to be in danger of derailing the momentum but that is easily overcome.
Three further installments await Colchester audiences over the coming months and it will be intriguing to learn more about this complex but completely enthralling world.