Writer: Alan Ayckbourne
Director: Nadia Fall
Reviewer: Bill Avenell
If Chichester wanted to show off the much vaunted upgrade to The Festival Theatre then it is hard to find a better vehicle than this classic Ayckbourne black comedy based round that most English of institutions, ‘the boating holiday’. And indeed it is worth the trip if only to see the set and appreciate the technical skill and challenges behind accommodating Ayckbourne’s setting of the play on a motor cruiser voyaging up the River Orb. Historically Way Upstream is notorious for its National Theatre difficulties but Chichester pulls it off magnificently and it must be one of the few times in any critics life that they have witnessed a storm in which the customary sound effects of thunder and lightning are backed up by real rain, and heavy rain at that. So the ‘creatives’ are very much pushed to the fore in this production but it is not only the major issues of set, masterminded by Chichester’s Technical Co coordinator Sam Garner-Gibbons, that strike the senses. From the obvious impact of inventive lighting and ‘fast-forwarding’ of the action by Tim Mitchell and atmospheric sound effects, ranging from echoey railway tunnels to squeaky insect noises, provided by Fergus O’Hare to the more subtle choices of costume (watch out for Mrs Hadfield’s transformation), this is a feast for followers of the less lauded theatrical arts.
But Nadia Fall has gathered a strong cast which she directs with aplomb to make it an acting bonanza as well as a technical one. Sarah Parish is particularly good as June, disaffected with her marriage and ready for adventure when Vince, a mysterious and increasingly sinister Jason Durr, arrives on the scene. They are backed up by Jason Hughes as the unbelievably wet Alistair, Jill Halfpenny as his long suffering wife Emma and Peter Forbes the overbearing ‘skipper’ Keith, which all makes this a performance with no weak links.
Despite his acknowledged position in the pantheon of modern British theatre, Ayckbourne is by no means everybody’s ‘cup of tea’ and this play is classic Ayckbourne. So be prepared for what starts out to be a witty, tongue in cheek, poking of fun at the boating holiday which points up all those well tried situations of skipper and crew and family fall out through cramped conditions, gradually to move into the darker side of marital relationships and then into the very blackest areas of human nature as the two couples travel upstream towards the aptly named Armageddon Bridge where a degree of optimism finally breaks out.
A Chichester full-house laughed loudly at the actors’ excellent timing of Ayckbourne’s clever dialogue but it is not a cosy comfortable evening’s viewing so don’t go expecting one. On the other hand if you like Ayckbourne’s plays then this is a really well produced and executed version and the technical side is a ‘tour de force’.
Tour photo ¦ Way Upstream runs until 16th May 2015