Writers: Alan Ayckbourn and John Mortimer
Directors: Lora Davies and Emma Faulkner
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Londoners are busier than ever before, our working hours are creeping ever upwards and there’s never enough time to fit in all the extra-curricular activities we want to do. But the St James’s Theatre has hit upon a fantastic premise for the culture-starved – “Lunchtime Theatre” – and in less than 45 minutes you can enjoy not one, but two one-act comedy dramas by leading writers. Short plays are also having a bit of a renaissance thanks to the Branagh Theatre Company’s inclusion of Rattigan’s All On My Own as the overture to Harlequinade last year, so these charming new productions of Ayckbourn’s Countdown and Mortimer’s Mill Hill feel very of-the-moment.
Countdown is a very short (c.15 minutes) piece about a long-married couple having tea together one evening. The conceit is that while addressing perfectly pleasant remarks to one another, they also speak their thoughts aloud to the audience which, with Ayckbourn’s deft comic touch, shows how little they really know each other. For example, as it opens the Husband is sitting alone waiting for his wife to bring him a cup of tea and complaining that he’ll be expected to bring in the tray as usual. He heads off to find her only for the Wife to appear with the tray complaining that he always wants to bring it in for some reason.
Clive Hayward and Sherry Baines make the perfect frustrated couple bringing out the mundanities and petty competition of long relationships as they try to get the other’s attention with fake laughter and meaningless conversation. Yet, Hayward and Baines also extract considerably pathos from this classic Ayckbourn scenario, so the fundamental loneliness of these two characters is clear, particularly as they reminisce about how happy they used to be but only interact with each other about motor-mowers and boilers.
The second production in this double bill is John Mortimer’s Mill Hill, which takes a slightly different look at the absurdities or ordinary people. Denise and Peter are having an as yet unconsummated affair, after meeting in the lift at a dentists’ annual conference, and one afternoon decide to make the most of Denise’s empty house. But things get a little more interesting than anticipated as Peter reveals a strange fetish for Elizabethan role-play in costume. Somewhat bemused, Denise agrees only for her husband to return home unexpectedly and the lovers must convince him that their amateur theatrics are not what they seem.
This is a cleverly played farcical piece that builds to a hilarious comic pitch. The lovers, played by Clare Lawrence Moody and Carl Prekopp (pictured above), are delightfully awkward as they try to set a seductive mood and fail dismally to entice one another. Prekopp is particularly good at channelling a nervous energy into Peter’s movements as he reveals his strange fantasy, contrasting hilariously with their mundane occupations, which provides plenty of opportunity for some great physical comedy. Paul Kemp’s entrance as Denise’s husband Roy adds just the right note of self-absorption, allowing him to miss the obvious goings-on in his home, and then proceeds to almost steal the show with a gloriously over-the-top finale.
Seeing these two plays together is a chance to rediscover rare comic gems by two of our leading writers. The choice of plays in Other People presents a rather pessimistic view of marriage but combines the more subtle and emotional comedy of Ayckbourn with the sillier pitch of Mortimer’s piece. For those pressed for time, at 45 minutes this is a charming introduction to “Lunchtime Theatre” – let’s hope it catches on.
Runs until 25 June 2016 | Image: Contributed