“Generally…I just look at them, generally”
And so once again I find myself drawn to the theatre to see an Alan Ayckbourn play despite the fact I know it is most likely to be a big mistake. The assembly of a good cast is something I’ve always found hard to resist – in this case it was the glorious Claire Price and Ed Bennett, plus the slightly left of the middle choice of Natalie Imbruglia, making her stage debut here. Plus there was the general assertion that the near-twenty year old Things We Do For Love is ostensibly one of his better plays, though on this evidence I don’t quite know why and thus I wouldn’t want to give you the wrong impression, this play left me far from satisfied.
Starting today at Richmond Theatre after a tour that has taken in many a UK city, Laurence Boswell’s Theatre Royal Bath production is certainly handsomely mounted in Giles Cadle’s perfectly designed set which reflects the demands of one of Ayckbourn’s rare forays into specifically end-on work. Set in the Fulham home of frustrated career woman Barbara which has been partitioned into three flats, we see the entirety of her middle floor home but only a couple of feet into those of her tenants – creepy handyman Gilbert below and old school friend, and new affiancéed, Nikki.
It’s a tricksy device which sometimes works, as in capturing the philanderings of Gilbert as he works on something shocking on his ceiling and less well as the shenanigans from upstairs are represented solely from the knee down or in the case of some ungainly wrangling, from an awkward position on the bed. All the while, Barbara’s ‘spinsterish sanctuary’ (the interview in the programme about this very subject has to be seen to be believed) is shattered as the repressed but reciprocated feelings for her friend’s fiancé Hamish see them diving in the deep end into a passionate affair.
It is hard not to be impressed by as good a quality cast as this, especially as they layer in more depth into the characters than Ayckbourn’s simplistic, sitcom-ish writing allows. Price in particular has to work extremely hard to make Barbara anything more than a humourless harridan and in all honesty, deserves something better than this play, it’s hard to identify what actors see in roles like this. But as she surrenders to her feelings for Ed Bennett’s charismatic Hamish (making his own entry into lookatmyfuckingredtrousers) with their flirting up against the wall, it almost becomes fun. Almost.
For because this is one of Ayckbourn’s darker works, it is landed with huge contradictions as their lustful passion turns violent and this violence is played purely for laughs, something that sits a little strangely on a modern stage with the spectre of domestic violence uncomfortably close for my liking. And as everything goes up in smoke and the emotional hurricane burns out, the emotional scars are left mainly with Imbruglia’s Nikki, a previously thankless role which finally comes into its own as she surveys the wreckage that has been made of her life like a frightened child.
By contrast, Simon Gregor’s Gilbert is one of those comic creations that you will either love or hate and though the vast majority of those around me were loving him (do you love people falling through doors and struggling to walk through doors etc, if so you’re in luck) his drunken acting proved to be painful beyond belief. Gilbert is a horribly conceived role though, his position as a satellite to the main characters, a figure of fun for the three yuppies, and by extension us the audience, speaks to the worst kind of shiver-inducing middle class smugness and simply reiterates the way in which Ayckbourn’s writing often ages difficultly.
With the sunlight beating down on a lovely evening in Richmond Park with butterflies, pigeons and crumbs all around, I couldn’t help wishing I was there whilst sitting in the theatre and my god, don’t you think I already knew that I wouldn’t be wild about it. But slow down a minute, theatre is just one more addiction in my life, so whilst it is safe to say I won’t be counting down the days until the next Ayckbourn production is inevitably soon announced – possibly tomorrow morning – I will doubtless be torn about whether to go when inevitably someone I love is cast in a cameo role come September and despite my intuition telling me otherwise, I’ll just bid my common sense goodbye and book once more. Now leave me alone.