Writer: Torben Betts
Director: Henry Bell
Designer: Lucy Weller
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Torben Betts’ new play is firmly in a glorious Scarborough tradition. Those with long memories will recall the shock with which theatre-goers realised that those delightful Ayckbourn farces weren’t delightful at all, but had a full set of teeth and used them freely. The National Joke is mid-period Ayckbourn, brilliantly transformed for the 21st Century, not just in technical developments (the Twitterati have an important plot function), but in social attitudes, political concerns and the underlying sense of personal isolation.
As a family gathers in an opulent country house garden to watch a solar eclipse, it’s obvious from the start that there are major frictions: Rupert is barely on speaking terms with his wife, Olivia, because he has heard her in what he thinks is a compromising phone call with a man; Olivia might as well not be on speaking terms with her mother, Mary, whose constant litany of waspish complaints is not to be interrupted.
Rupert St John-Green is a long-standing Conservative MP whose upward progress was thrown off course by a drunken indiscretion in the Strangers’ Bar, but who has reasonable hopes of a knighthood. Olivia is his much younger second wife, he is her second husband. The unquestioning snobbery of her mother, now newly widowed, finds Rupert’s historic house and spacious grounds a relief after Olivia’s first marriage to a socially unacceptable Australian. Charlie, the daughter of that marriage, returns from college in Liverpool en route to moving to live with her father in Australia – and she brings with her Dan, a married counsellor who is in love with her.
And this is only the start. Betts’ handling of the gradual revelation of secrets, some career- or life-threatening, some smaller-scale, is masterly, many of them secrets because nobody listens rather than through deliberate concealment. Huge gaps appear in characters’ knowledge of each other. Betts often uses two simultaneous conversations or one overlapping double-monologue of a conversation to reveal the power of language to fail to communicate. The revelations consistently surprise and convince, until the very end when, for the first time, the predictable and the sentimental break in.
Henry Bell directs with the utmost sharpness and precision in Lucy Weller’s attractive garden set, though perhaps Scarborough’s In the Round can’t quite suggest its splendour. In a uniformly excellent cast,the wonderful Annabel Leventon’s caustic and self-regarding Mary makes the early running as the character we love to hate (and laugh at). Cate Hamer as Olivia, apparently a harassed, well-intentioned wife dealing with herproblematic husband, mother and kids, gradually finds darker stranger depths.
Philip Bretherton’s Rupert unravels to spectacularly comic effect and Catherine Lamb (Charlie) perfectly combines the brightness and apparent honesty of youth with her own brand of duplicity and self-obsession. As for Dan, Guy Burgess seems a decent sort of chap, normal really, if with rather stereotypical left-wing views, but that’s before his angst-ridden confessions to a drunken Tory MP.
Is The National Joke a comedy? Probably, but let’s hedge our bets and call it a very funny, very bleak play.
Runs until 20 August 2016 | Image: Tony Bartholomew