“He’s not a novelist, painter or artist…he’s a personality”
Drowning on Dry Land is the third Alan Ayckbourn currently playing in London (Season’s Greetings and Snake in the Grass being the other two) just opening at the Jermyn Street Theatre. Written in 2004, it is a look at the curious nature of Z-list celebrity, of people who are famous just for being famous, following professional celebrity Charlie Conrad, universally adored as a grand underachiever, whose security is revealed to be paper-thin as his wife is terminally unsatisfied, his jaded agent is looking for a way out and as it turns out, he is all too aware of the precariousness of his position. Things come to a head at the birthday party of one of his children in the grounds of their country mansion when he is caught in the most compromising of positions with one of his adoring fans who has her own agenda.
Part of the problem that I had with this show was ironically acknowledged in the show itself – one of the characters even says “six years is a long time in showbusiness” – and the way in which celebrity coverage through various forms of media has saturated the market means that there’s countless ‘real-life’ dramas in our day-to-day lives, should we wish to engage with them. Ayckbourn’s subject matter for this play has been overtaken by reality and resultantly presents little that is acutely observed or revelatory to us here, especially as we are all complicit in the understanding that so much of what is considered ‘celebrity’ these days is purely vacuous and talent-free.
The way in which the central Charlie is presented to us is also problematic. Ayckbourn keeps him a quite enigmatic character: sometimes gormless but essentially kind-hearted and a victim of circumstance beyond his control, he is also sometimes much more of a calculating player, fully aware of and able to work the game. Christopher Coghill plays the dim-witted side well but rarely convinced at the latter and thus there’s a strange unevenness to the play as so much of it is about how the others interact with him and by and large they all did well. Emma Swain did well at demonstrating the conflicts of a talented woman struggling with her too-tightly-defined role as society wife and mother, Siobhan Hewlett’s manic and manipulative media type was brightly done, Les Dennis’ agent had a calm placidity and I rather liked Helen Mortimer as Marsha, the tongue-tied children’s entertainer whose own manipulations after the fatal fumble causes Charlie’s downfall but simultaneously launches her own media career.
The unevenness was exacerbated by the way that the opening to the second act feels shoe-horned in: it is essentially a court-room cross-examination scene but set in the same garden where the events of the first half took place, an unlikely contrivance but allows for the single set to kept in place for the show. It is brilliantly driven by Mark Farrelly’s oily manipulative big-shot lawyer Hugo, expertly needling the defendant, and a quieter but still effective turn from Russell Bentley as Simeon, her own rather dim lawyer and a schoolboy chum of Hugo’s.
The real star for me though is Georgia Lowe’s set design which is strikingly effective, transforming the limited space into an ivy-covered private garden complete with Victorian folly tower which looks tremendous (and I bet it didn’t break the bank either) although as a metaphor for celebrity, the staircase leads you back to where you began rather than taking you to the top, it felt a little overwrought. So mostly entertaining, thanks to some great performances which manage to overcome some of the clunkiness of the writing and construction, but ultimately a curious choice of revival given its nature.