Writer: Alan Ayckbourn
Director: Alan Ayckbourn
Designer: Kevin Jenkins
Lighting: Jason Taylor
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
The Stephen Joseph Theatre makes this production something of a hostage to fortune by prominently displaying Robin Herford’s assessment of Taking Steps as the funniest play in the English language. Alan Ayckbourn’s new production of his 1979 farce doesn’t quite live up to that which leaves us – quite unfairly – wondering what’s wrong. The answer, of course, is nothing: maybe his 2017 take on the characters is a touch too kindly and maybe the gales of laughter that reputedly broke the tannoy in 1979 don’t recur at the same level, but this revival is cleverly cast, beautifully paced, unfailingly ingenious and very funny.
Surprisingly Ayckbourn describes Taking Steps as his only farce. In this case, the doors which conceal and reveal indiscretions in the typical farce are replaced by stairs. The action takes place in a three-storey house with action occurring simultaneously in attic, bedroom and lounge crammed together in Kevin Jenkins’ deliberately confusing designs. Characters run/stumble/stagger/tip-toe up and down two sets of flat stairs. As well as an entertaining range of funny walks, this provides the audience with comic multiple perspectives and a smug sense of omniscience denied to the stage characters.
Oddly, for a play which is dominated by male characters, there is a nicely subversive feminist angle. The two female characters are both desperately seeking escape from crushingly boring males; one succeeds, the other probably doesn’t.
The plot is simply a structure on which to build misunderstandings. The Pines is a large crumbling house, at one time a brothel, reputedly haunted by the ghost of a prostitute – starting point for one set of misunderstandings. Roland Crabbe, a hardware magnate, has been leasing it from a local builder, hoping to indulge his ex-dancer wife Elizabeth, but in fact driving her to the point of leaving him. Now Roland wishes to buy the house from Leslie, the builder, and young solicitor Tristram appears in order to see legal fair play. The fact that Tristram is incapable of coming out with a sentence of words in the right order is pretty good at creating misunderstandings, too! Then there is Elizabeth’s brother, Mark, who is about to collect his fiancée, Kitty, who is returning home after bolting on their wedding day. Add in a couple of farewell notes, an assumed attempted suicide and mistaken identities galore and the result is Ayckbourn at his trickiest.
As always with Ayckbourn, the cast operates superbly as an ensemble, even Laura Matthews (Kitty) who spends most of the play trapped in a cupboard or attempting a breakout only to be frustrated by footsteps on the (flat) stairs. The central trio, negotiating a house purchase amid the chaos, are nicely balanced. Russell Dixon as Roland goes from ironic urbanity to naked threats to tearful breakdown without missing a beat, Leigh Symonds is convincingly shifty as Leslie and Antony Eden (Tristram) radiates decency and confusion with impeccable comic timing. Only Ayckbourn could make the most boring man in the world entertaining and Laurence Pears, inducing sleep all round as Mark, does the job perfectly. Louise Shuttleworth (Elizabeth), obsessed with her own imagined glory as a dancer, projects an elegant poise which fractures with each change of mind or mistaken identity.
Runs until 5 October 2017 | Image: Tony Bartholomew