Writer: Alan Ayckbourn
Director: Alan Ayckbourn
Reviewer: Mary Tapper
In this touring set of plays, The Ayckbourn Ensemble, we have a new play, Arrivals &Departures, a couple of one act farces, Farcicals, and a revival of an old favourite, Time of My Life. Here Alan Ayckbourn has chosen to revisit one of his favourite plays on the 21st anniversary of its West End debut. One of his few plays set in the North, he enjoys exploring family relationships while playing with time.
At the beginning of the play we join a family scene in a busy Italian restaurant. It is the mother, Laura’s, birthday and she is joined by husband, and two sons, one bringing his wife, the other introducing his new girlfriend to the group. The family have been coming to the same restaurant to celebrate landmarks in their lives for decades and here Ayckbourn starts to play with time. As the evening draws to a close he brings the two sons and their partners on in turn, to small tables set in front of the main group….Glyn taking the story forward, letting us know what happens after the celebration, and Adam rewinding, and telling us the story of how he and his girlfriend met and finally arrived at the night of the meal. In between we are treated to snippets of the end of the meal, when the sons have departed, giving insights into the relationship between the mother and father.
The format works well and Ayckbourn has obviously had great fun devising his play. It is a little predictable in places and the Italian waiters, who enter to steal the scenes here and there, seem a little hackneyed and out of place, but the characters are well drawn and as the play develops we are drawn into the piece. Richard Stacey as Glyn is particularly good and, with Emily Pithon, playing wife Stephanie, they provide a credible and touching couple. James Powell, as Adam, and Rachel Caffrey, as girlfriend Maureen, provide some much needed light relief in the second half as their first meeting is revealed, but the show really belongs to Sarah Parks as Laura, the stubborn rather self-centred mother, who cannot resist blunt home truths and meddling in her children’s lives. Parks makes the character unsympathetic and yet, in the second half, we glimpse small clues as to why she behaves as she does and the tough veneer cracks to show her vulnerable side.
The set is simple with a large table, raised on a plinth, for the family gathering and two smaller tables placed in front, for the time shifts of the two sons. At times there is noise from behind the set as waiters wheel trolleys to and fro and this sometimes intrudes on the dialogue and seems a little amateur, but this is a small niggle, and for the most part both sound and lighting are excellent. Costumes are good and Laura in particular, with her 80s power suit, seems just right.
So a thought-provoking play. This is more tragedy than comedy but, with a clever structure and good acting, it certainly gives you pause for thought. Ayckbourn spells it out for us at the end and in the title – enjoy the moment when you are in it, it might be one of your happiest. Well worth a visit.
Photo: Tony Bartholomew | Runs until 8th Feb and touring