“I just want you to know I think you’re a total and utter bastard and that one of these days I hope you’ll get what’s coming to you. Having said that, best of luck with the show tonight and I hope it goes really well for you.”
Alan Ayckbourn’s plays seem to be unavoidable, not least at the Harold Pinter theatre where Absent Friends previously played to be followed by Trevor Nunn’s production of A Chorus of Disapproval and that’s before a Pinter play has even made it onto the stage of the renamed theatre. And I’ve yet to really succumb to the pleasures of our most prolific of living writers, I’ve visited many of the productions of his plays that have played in London in recent years but never quite had that lightbulb moment to explain to me his enduring success.
But I’m always up for testing my assumptions and when a friend offered to day seat (front row seats for £10), I was happy to accept and sure enough, whilst it wasn’t quite a Damascene conversion, I did find myself laughing more than I expected and actually enjoying myself for the most part. Key to this was Rob Brydon’s central performance as the ineffably Welsh Dafydd ap Llewellyn, a solicitor by day and a amateur dramatics theatre director by night taking his group through their latest production of The Beggar’s Opera. The play opens with the final number from that show and as the curtain descends, we see backstage that the relationships amongst the cast are incredibly strained.
We then flip back to the beginning of the story, to see that the leading man Guy Jones is a new arrival to the town, recently widowed and starting a new job at the local multinational corporation (what town doesn’t have one…), he auditions for a place in the show. He’s a simple but handsome chap (played by Nigel Harman natch) and his good looks see him starting affairs with Dafydd’s wife Hannah and also Fay, one half of the town’s leading swinger couple. And the men also work their way into Guy’s orbit, as rumours of money-making opportunities lead them to schmoozing him something rotten.
Thus Ayckbourn shows off a little metatextual cleverness as the romantic plot of his play comes to resemble the tangled love triangle of The Beggar’s Opera and there are moments of well-observed humour – Dafydd thoroughly putting his foot in it as he talks about Guy’s dead wife, and Fay and Guy’s conversation where she’s talking about sex and he about food is brilliantly done – and pathos – Guy and Hannah’s dissolution of their relationship as played against the testing of the lighting grid at the theatre is unexpectedly quite moving.
But it never becomes more than that. Ayckbourn’s characters are just too one-dimensional for us ever to thoroughly invest in their fate, fun is poked at the middle classes but the shallowness of it all means there’s little opportunity to connect and engage and create meaningful comedy. The casting doesn’t always help: Harman doesn’t quite convince as a naive Yorkshireman in the broader ostensibly comic moments, though he does make a good Macheath, and Ashley Jensen likewise never feels entirely comfortable as the ‘posh’ Hannah, unable to locate the empathy needed to make us feel for her dilemma.
Brydon is excellent though, perhaps not a million miles from his television persona but working hard to make his bumbling director a sympathetic victim as well as a overenthusiastic buffoon. And there’s good support from Susan Tracy as a chortling, sherry-sozzled neighbour, Paul Thornley in the tightest white jeans I’ve seen for some time and Daisy Beaumont’s lascivious Fay. So not a game-changer in terms of Ayckbourn plays, but a worthy reminder that it is impossible to tar so large a body or work with the same brush and I have to say this was well worth the £10 (though those seats are incredibly uncomfortable).