Writer: Alan Ayckbourn
Director: Robin Herford
With over 80 plays to his name, it’s unreasonable to expect Alan Ayckbourn not to have churned out a few turkeys in his time. Britain’s greatest living writer and theatre innovator is often unfairly written off as a producer of cosy middle-class comedies; the reality is that his strongest plays combine an acute dissection of social mores with a darker shadow of the painful challenges of human relationships, often framed within a playful and creative dramatic conceit to wring unexpected depth from the most familiar scenarios.
But anyone stumbling into this touring production, of what the programme acknowledges is “one of the more obscure pieces in the Ayckbourn canon”, might be forgiven for not finding some of the trademark creativity, wit, heart and soul that is remembered from better known works like The Norman Conquests or Absurd Person Singular.
Charting the (eventually) tumultuous meetings of a committee seeking to turn a little-known moment from their parochial town’s history into a summer pageant, tensions fray, sides are taken and capital-P politics take over the otherwise friendly discussions.
Committee chairman Ray (Robert Daws) seeks to keep the peace as his wife Helen (Deborah Grant) finds a class nemesis in self-confessed Marxist Eric (Craig Gazey), while councilman Donald (Mark Curry) bores for Britain, and drunkard Laurence (Robert Duncan) struggles with sobriety and an impending marital breakdown. These community figures begin to form into fraught factions as they plan the re-enactment of a historical massacre that will have disastrous results…
First staged in the late 1970s, it’s understandable that the play might be expected to find relevance in some of the more obvious divisions of our society 40 years later, but the overall feeling is just how dated the writing is. Robin Herford’s direction fails to raise much interest, leaving us with a decidedly static and sedentary production which doesn’t even capitalise on the farcical climax which should (one assumes) be suitably choreographed to the live music, for added comic effect. As it is, we get sub-standard farce that relies on barely earned goodwill from the audience to get to the curtain call.
Which is not to say the cast don’t give their all – Robert Daws, in particular, impressively managing to both elongate and strangulate his vowels as he stutters his way through the battles being fought around him – but the characters feel too clichéd, the politics too broad and jaded, and much of both the verbal and the physical humour falls flat throughout.
There is precious little sense of the personal relationships between the characters, or of any of those relationships being seriously at stake. What should be a frantic satire of the gnawing tedium of committee meetings ends up just feeling limp and lumpen.
The experience is of watching an episode of a 1970s sitcom, and understanding why they don’t make them like that any more.
Runs until 8 February 2020 | Image: Contributed