Writer Alan Ayckbourn
Director Alan Ayckbourn
Designer Michael Holt
Reviewer Ron Simpson
Now into his sixth decade of writing plays, Alan Ayckbourn has learned the art of being unpredictable. At one time, audiences and critics felt they had isolated the Ayckbourn comic gene, but that hope is long gone. In Hero’s Welcome, the comedy begins in what we like to think of as typical Ayckbourn territory – small town politics, edgy or unbalanced marriages, deception and lies – but, when he has worked through mystery and melodrama, the play ends as a simple and touching love story.
The hero of the title is Murray, a soldier who has returned from a tour of duty in some unidentified warzone highly decorated and with a young wife with an unpronounceable name shortened to Baba. As he goes through a modestly hesitant television interview, it emerges that he is returning to his hometown 17 years after leaving it under a cloud. On Michael Holt’s effective split set (a kitchen, a living room and Murray’s hotel room), two women watch the interview, one dismissing it with the occasional expletive, the other enthusing over the local hero.
The former is Alice, now Mayor of the town, a hard-edged career woman who, we learn fairly soon, was left standing at the altar by Murray. Now she is married to the nicely ineffectual Derek – man with train set – happily, to all appearances, but surely second-best. The enthusiastic woman is Kara, the ill-educated and underbred (as he would see it) wife of Brad, owner of the big house, child of privilege, once Murray’s best friend. This marriage only survives on Kara’s ability to remain cheerful under a succession of smoothly vicious insults.
The parameters for the unfolding mystery are set fairly early. It has to do with the youthful triangle of Murray, Brad and Alice, the reasons for Murray’s hasty departure, and the past and present of Murray’s father’s old town centre pub-cum-hotel, The Bird of Prey. This was central to whatever shenanigans went on two decades before and now, dilapidated and poised between listed status and a demolition order, it is a bone of contention between Murray and Baba on the one hand, and Alice and the council on the other. The developments that follow are seldom expected, one of the strengths of the play, but also something of a problem. A couple of “This is what really happened” accounts and some of the more melodramatic twists are more plot contrivances than character-led action.
As always, Ayckbourn achieves a delicate unbalance of characters. In many ways, Brad is the most interesting; incapable of accepting anyone as his superior in anything, and with a totally unreconstructed attitude to women. In Stephen Billington’s beautifully contained performance, hints of self-disgust emerge alongside contempt for pretty much everyone else. Russell Dixon’s Derek is a master class in perfectly timed and detailed comic acting, a man so obsessed by his computerised train set that he even checks his watch for departure time in mid-embrace. Terenia Edwards’ stage debut as Baba is a triumph. The character is not always easy to believe in, but the performance is astonishing, moving from wide-eyed fearful child-bride to the strongest character in the play – with the most impressive English vocabulary.
Elizabeth Boag is completely convincing as the strong woman of the council, coldly correct and wearily tolerant of her husband, but her character is less developed by the text than it might be. Emma Manton (Kara) has more chance to balance public and private (the outwardly chirpy prisoner playing stupidity as her trump card) and also has a brief telling cameo as Brad and Kara’s hatchet-faced daughter. And what about Murray himself? Richard Stacey gives a selfless understated performance as the character who is the catalyst for extreme behaviour in others while becoming a hero by being, simply, honestly, himself.
Runs Until: 3 October 2015