by Alan Ayckbourn
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford.
A hilarious farce and and a remarkable piece of theatre - Alan Ayckbourn and director Alan Strachan achieve the impossible – a play in four dimensions!
Two adulterers involve an innocent third couple in their attempts to avoid discovery by their spouses. The resulting mayhem involves two dinner parties (that familiar Ayckbourne scenario) fraught with embarrassments, disasters and comic misunderstandings. The social fallout keeps the audience on the edge of their seats and laughing, the only ones in the know.
And all of this takes place in two different houses, on two different evenings - but simultaneously on one stage set! The staging, design and acting require master skills. The characters in both houses cross and pace the stage, playing out the events separated by theatrical time and space, but to the audience’s view, only missing collisions by inches. There are very funny moments at key points when the two realities seem to converge!
The cast are superb. All are experienced actors on screen as well as stage: Charlie Brooks appears regularly on EastEnders, as “Janine Butcher”. Here she plays Teresa Phillips, a feisty proto-feminist, with alternate ferocity and pathos. Leon Ockenden as her husband is determined to survive as an energetic, unreconstructed male.
In contrast, Matthew Cottle and Sara Crowe as Mr and Mrs Featherstone have a marriage that might have been made in Victorian England. Their cringing class-consciousness allows us to laugh heartily at a generation where having to ask to go to the toilet could be an acute social embarrassment. Sarah Crowe, speechless in the presence of “her betters”, and meekly accepting of her husband’s patronising “protection” is a brilliant caricature.
The hard, elegant brightness and ruthlessness of Caroline Langrishe as the boss’s wife, Fiona Foster, may have touched a chord for many in the Guildford audience, as she struggles to make her doomed dinner party “work”! Robert Daws as her cuckolded husband creates a sympathetic character despite (or for the audience, because of) his endless rambling, painful narration of half-remembered anecdotes and jokes. He is Ayckbourne at his most Pinteresque.
This is one of Alan Ayckbourne’s early plays, first staged in 1970. Much of the fun hinges on phone calls between the houses being intercepted, so the play has to be set in its original era, before personal mobile phones. In any case, the action and dialogue depend very much upon that time’s social mores of marriage, divorce and gender relationships. In common with all of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays, this play comments without preaching on those issues, as well as being a brilliant farce. I loved it. The theatre was very full on Monday night – get tickets if you can.