DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

On the Piste – Harrogate Theatre

Writer: John Godber

Director: Phil Lowe

Set Design: Graeme Skingle and Will Heyes

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Harrogate Rep, back for a second year, is a smart idea and already a favourite with audiences. The same company performs three plays in three weeks, thus enabling the audience, as the programme says, “to see the same cast in different roles across the shows.” Except it’s not quite like that. Three weeks is not really long enough to get the huge variety of parts – suitable and unsuitable – that old-style weekly rep offered and, with eight actors and cast sizes between four and six, only Ross Waiton doesn’t get a week off.

The compensation is considerable for losing some of the sense of the rep company as a family. Judging from the opening On the Piste, production values are higher than you would expect from weekly rep and casting is more appropriate, the one oddity in that respect the result, surely, of a conscious decision, not expediency.

On the Piste is the first of three nicely varied popular plays, followed by Ira Levin’s thriller Deathtrap and the wonderfully crazy four-actor adaptation of The 39 Steps. On the Piste itself is a play that John Godber has re-worked in different forms over the years, with cast size varying from five to eight and other changes from the country it’s set in, to the age of the English couples. The Harrogate version has six characters and is set in Austria.

In many ways it’s a typical Godber situation: put two socially inept English couples in a country they don’t know, attempting an activity that’s new to them, throw in a couple of attractive and potentially available outsiders, one of each sex, shake it up and see what happens. Along the way comedy is guaranteed from incompetent skiers, a faulty chair-lift, an ultra-hot sauna and, of course, a fair few drunken Brits.

What is unusual is that the breaches in relationships widened on holiday don’t heal: there is a real edge to much of the comedy. Dave and Bev seem a middle-aged couple seeking romance. Early on her attempt to get him to move in with her when they return is the first hint of an unpleasantly one-sided relationship between the clingingly pathetic and the selfishly uncommitted. Alison and Chris, in their early 30s, have known each other for 10 years, been together for seven – repeated as a mantra – but they still can’t read each other, love each other or stop loving each other. Add in the macho ski instructor Tony and the rich and stylish frequenter of the slopes, Melissa, and you have the formula for two hours comic drama.

Phil Lowe’s production, in Graeme Skingle and Will Heyes’ designs, lacks nothing in panache. At curtain-up, Tony (Oliver Mellor) skis confidently down a curving slope, throws in a little jump for kicks and strikes a self-congratulatory pose. Later on, rooms at the hotel are slotted smoothly into the curve of the slope. Tony is irritating, but fun and Mellor carries it off with style – and towards the end that outlandish accent is toned down as the man talks sense about what those idiots of Brits are up to.

Dave is not an idiot, but he is far more unpleasant than his early matter-of-fact persona suggests. Ross Waiton is spot on in indicating the inhumanity that can lie beneath an image of normality, as is Janine Mellor as Bev who attracts illness, injury and rejection, manages the slowest descent in Alpine history and never speaks a new sentence when there’s a chance of repeating her previous one. Melissa’s back story is undeveloped (three years married, on her own – why?), but Anna Clarke convinces and intrigues.

The oddity comes with Alison and Chris – or, rather with Chris, for the switches and explosions of Alison (a fairly understated Katy Dean) are the least you would expect from 10 years of Chris. Ewan Goddard’s performance moves from a variety of pratfalls to soliloquies about his inadequacies and fantasies (at one point summoning up Abba) to contradictory declarations of love or hate to staggeringly morose drunkenness – all with a tendency to move into Michael Crawford mode in Some Mothers do ‘Ave ‘Em. Goddard works hard and skilfully, but is this a successful radio presenter and voice-over artist?

Harrogate Rep runs until September 14, 2019 | Image: Contributed

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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