Review: A Chorus of Disapproval, Harold Pinter Theatre

“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. Continue reading “Review: A Chorus of Disapproval, Harold Pinter Theatre”

Review: Absent Friends, Harold Pinter Theatre

“Keep it cheerful”

In some ways, there’s no point in commenting on Alan Ayckbourn as a playwright – his position in the pantheon is evidently secured and his body of work is frequently revived and toured around the country. And with such a prolific pen, it is a considerable number of plays that he has now amassed – 75 at the last count. However, I have never really been seduced by him, the only play I’ve really liked was the atypical Snake in the Grass, the majority of his pieces have struck me as somewhat inconsequential and sitcom-like, and further dulled by repetition as evidenced by the smattering of his oeuvre I have witnessed. But I can never resist a ticket being dropped into my hand and the lure of an interesting looking cast meant that I took in Absent Friends at the Harold Pinter Theatre.

One of his earlier works from 1974, Absent Friends sees Ayckbourn train his aim on death and the different ways people deal with it. Colin’s old friends are holding a Saturday afternoon tea party to comfort him after the unfortunate death of his fiancee but as they attempt to step gingerly around the topic, he is more than willing to talk about her, their short time together and show his photo collection to everyone. But what Colin is blithely unaware of is that the perfect lives that he imagines they are all living are a sham and behind the forced smiles over the sandwiches, lies a seething mass of jealousy, anger and frustration that is coming to the boil and it becomes apparent that it is not him whose really in need of tea and comfort. Continue reading “Review: Absent Friends, Harold Pinter Theatre”

Review: Joking Apart, Union Theatre

“Don’t you have any normal friends?”

The next all-male Gilbert and Sullivan production at the Union (Patience) appears to be taking place early next year rather than taking the pre-festive slot that one has become accustomed to over the last couple of years, and instead we’re being treated to a bit of Alan Ayckbourn with his 21st comedy Joking Apart. Despite his reputation, I’ve never really connected with Ayckbourn in my limited experience of his work, the revival of Snake in the Grass being a notable exception, and not even a truly stellar cast could rescue Season’s Greetings for me at the National. But the Union have a strong track record in creating effective small-scale productions and so I was intrigued to see how this would go.

Spread over 12 years, Joking Apart visits blissfully happy couple Richard and Anthea in their back garden at four-yearly intervals, following their relationship with the friends and neighbours around them and how those connections alter over time. From Bonfire Night in 1970 to a balmy summer Friday evening in 1982, with a Boxing Day and a random Sunday morning inbetween, we see how they interact with the earnest vicar and his highly strung wife, Richard’s Scandinavian business partner and wife, and his junior colleague Brian with his succession of young girlfriends. Continue reading “Review: Joking Apart, Union Theatre”

Review: Where’s My Seat, Bush Theatre

“They kiss reluctantly; they kiss enquiringly; they kiss passionately”

Though the Bush Theatre has gained a huge reputation as one of London’s top fringe theatres, balancing the charm of its intimacy with the severe limitation of the venue perched above a pub in Shepherds Bush has been something of a trial and so the opportunity to relocate to an old library just around the corner was gratefully seized and a new chapter in the Bush’s history commenced. Where’s My Seat offers audiences a preview of what the theatre will become, as it is still under construction and development, as three short plays test-drive the space and feedback from the audience actively sought from compère-for-the-evening Ralf Little.

There’s a real playfulness to Where’s My Seat that is evident from the moment one walks into the old Shepherds Bush Library: the walls are covered with scribbles of what will eventually be there or marked ‘knock through’. The programming also reflects this: 3 playwrights were invited to write short plays, utilising one of three different seating configurations and up to nine of the most random props that had been selected at random from the National Theatre’s archive, but the challenge did not even end there. Three theatrical luminaries were then invited to create a set of challenging stage directions which had to be incorporated into the plays, so outgoing Donmar supremo Michael Grandage, outgoing Bush supremo (and going to replace Grandage) Josie Rourke and Alan Ayckbourn did their best (Ayckbourn displaying something of a lack of humour about his efforts though, providing three pages worth where the others had about 6 each!) Continue reading “Review: Where’s My Seat, Bush Theatre”

Review: Drowning on Dry Land, Jermyn Street Theatre

“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.

Continue reading “Review: Drowning on Dry Land, Jermyn Street Theatre”

Review: Snake in the Grass, The Print Room

“We can’t live in a caravan”

Snake in the Grass is the London premiere of this Alan Ayckbourn play which is a rarity in itself as it marks one of his forays away from his more usual comedy. It is described by Ayckbourn himself as ‘a ghost play’, but it is more obviously a psychological thriller, threaded through with recognisable hints of class struggles and flashes of mordant humour. Directed by Lucy Bailey, who with Anda Winters have converted this Notting Hill warehouse into one of London’s newest new fringe venues, The Print Room.

Set in the grounds of a large country house, the play follows two sisters who are reunited after 20 years following the death of their authoritarian father. Annabel escaped her father’s clutches to Tasmania only to find new devils there, whilst Miriam stayed to care for their father but was driven to extreme measures. Finding themselves back together and then visited by a vindictive former nurse of their father’s who was dismissed, they find themselves having to deal both with the haunting ghosts of the past and the psychological threats of the present. Continue reading “Review: Snake in the Grass, The Print Room”

Review: Season’s Greetings, National Theatre

“Now we don’t want to start Christmas like this, do we?”

Slotting into rep in the Lyttelton for the next few months is Marianne Elliott’s production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Season’s Greetings, a play set during the festive period but by no means your average cheery Christmas show. Set in 1980 in the home of Neville and Belinda Bunker, this show shines a light on what happens when a group of nine people gather on Christmas Eve to spend the next few days together in festive harmony. The veneer of civility is soon shattered as we come to see that the various relationships, between friends, family, would-be lovers, husbands and wives, are all under huge strain and as events unfold spurred on by the arrival of a newcomer, home truths are exposed and the misery of human existence confronted.

It isn’t a comedy per se, rather a play with many farcical elements which come from the interactions between this group of people thrown together for Christmas as they tiptoe around fragile egos, unspoken truths, rampant libidos and frustrated ambitions. But it is also somewhat grim in its outlook: unhappy marriages, lack of career fulfilment, sexual frustrations are all themes that emerge time and time again, making for an uneasy mix. As an early preview, performances were impressive across the board but the pacing of the first act in particular needs a lot of work. With three scenes to Act II’s two, it is naturally somewhat longer but began to feel interminably long: around 15 people near me didn’t return after the interval, which was a shame as it did sharpen up quite a lot. Continue reading “Review: Season’s Greetings, National Theatre”

Review: Bedroom Farce, Duke of York’s

“My mother used to say, Delia, if ever S-E-X rears its ugly head, close your eyes before you see the rest of it.”

Alan Ayckbourn’s play Bedroom Farce follows three married couples in their bedrooms over a long, long night as a troubled fourth couple, Trevor and Susannah spill forth with their problems and visit each couple sometimes together, sometimes apart, but always causing havoc and making everyone question their own marital stability. It arrives at the Duke of York’s from a run last year at the Rose in Kingston with 5 of the 8 original cast members for a 14 week run.

I realise it has the word ‘farce’ in the title, but is the sight of a man in a coat several sizes too big, or a poorly constructed desk falling apart really so hilarious? The theatre was full of people laughing loudly from the word go at everything put in front of them, but I was not one of them. This play was at its best when the physical comedy stopped and the wit in the writing was allowed to shine through, but these moments were too few and far between for me and even then it was often just too mannered and inoffensive. Continue reading “Review: Bedroom Farce, Duke of York’s”

Winners of 2008-2009 Outer Critics Circle Awards

John Gassner Playwriting Award
Annie Baker, Body Awareness
WINNER – Gina Gionfriddo, Becky Shaw
Beau Willimon, Farragut North

Outstanding Actor in a Musical
James Barbour, A Tale of Two Cities
Matt Cavenaugh, West Side Story
WINNER – Brian d’Arcy James, Shrek the Musical
Josh Grisetti, Enter Laughing
David Pittu, What’s That Smell? The Music of Jacob Sterling
Continue reading “Winners of 2008-2009 Outer Critics Circle Awards”