So much for Ayckbourn’s retirement

Four Ayckbourn plays have been on for this summer’s season at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Different plays will suit different people, but if you can only pick one, Time of My Life was the best.

When Alan Ayckbourn announced his retirement as Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre from 2009, some people incorrectly thought that meant he was giving up the writing and directing too. This wasn’t the case at all; the Stephen Joseph Theatre had always done a mixture of Ayckbourn plays and other people’s, and Ayckbourn was going to continue writing and directing. The only change was that he was handing over the artistic programme to someone else, and in effect, it wasn’t so much the departure of Ayckbourn but the arrival of Chris Monks. Nevertheless, Ayckbourn did use the opportunity to take the occasional play of his elsewhere, such as the Orange Tree in Richmond and the Royal & Derngate in Northampton. One might even think he’s use the opportunity to take things easy.

But this year, not a chance. Since his retirement, Ayckbourn has done one new play and one revival each year, and this year, he’s taken on the lunchtime one-act plays as well. Far from Ayckbourn having a breather, instead Chris Monks is using Ayckbourn as a break from his own (admittedly very busy) schedule. So the summer 2013 season is a revival of the classic Time of My Life, new play Arrivals and Departures, and a pair of one-acts known collectively as Farcicals.

Family sitting round the table, Maureen nervously downing her drinkOut of the four plays on offer, I think I’d go for Time of My Life as the play most worth seeing. I’d previously read this as a script, and I wasn’t convinced this would work as a play. But, like last year’s Absurd Person Singular, having now seen it on stage, my doubts are settled. It may not be one a Ayckbourn’s most well-known plays, or one of his most innovative. But it is easily one of his saddest plays. There is nothing unusually distressing or harrowing about the play – just a beginning where a seemingly happy family share a perfect moment in time, and wondering how this could possibly fall apart the way it does.

It begins with the birthday dinner for a family, is a restaurant run by five waiters, all related (and all played by Ben Porter: credit to wardrobe for making five contrasting characters there). It looks like a happy scene, but almost straight away problems surface. New girlfriend Maureen (Rachel Caffrey) run off to the toilet to be sick. Mother Laura (Sarah Parks) makes no secret to favourite Adam (James Powell) how much she disapproves of her. Her other son Glyn (Richard Stacey) is only just back together with his wife Stephanie (Emily Pithon) after an abortive affair, and father Gerry somewhat tactlessly lectures them on the important of staying together. Sons, wives and girlfriends leave, leaving just Gerry and Laura. From now on, one table, where Glyn and Stephanie sit, goes into the future; another table, where Adam and Maureen split, goes into the past, and parents remain in real time.

And in all three directions, their lives unravel. In the future, Glyn and Stephanie’s marriage is under strain again as Glynn spends long hours away from home – although this is in part down to him struggling to keep his father’s business afloat, for Gerry died in a drunken car crash on the way home that night. Part of the reason is that in the present, Laura idly lets it slip of a fling she had with Gerry’s brother. In the past, we see the reverse transformation of Maureen, from the middle-class appearance she tried to put on to please Adam’s family, to the common hairdresser that Laura disapproves of – even to the point that they are engaged and Adam daren’t tell anyone about it. But come the end of act one, there is a glimmer of hope: Maureen’s delight at being invited to Adam’s family do, Glyn’s apparently happy reaction to Stephanie’s news of a second child of the way, and Laura moving on fast from the death of her husband. Can things work out.

Alas, this too is an illusion. Glyn is a leopard who doesn’t change his spots, and once again, he’s not told the whole truth about his long hours in the office. It backfires on him, because if he’s spent more time trying to save his dad’s company and less time on  suspiciously long not-really-business lunches, he might have kept his job when the company gets taken over. The backstory of Adam and Maureen, back to their meeting, is a happier one – but that only makes the future all the more sadder. For the only reason Laura got over widowhood so quickly is that she was bored of Gerry anyway, and uses her new-found freedom to tell a selfish lie to poison Adam and Mareen’s blossoming relationship and reduce Adam to a glorified housebound dog-sitter.

Time plays are hard. A common reaction to time plays is to go “Oh, wasn’t he clever to think of that idea?” Actually, that’s the easy bit. Anyone can come up with an idea to run scenes in non-chronological order – getting it work as a watchable story is much, much harder. One disadvantage of time plays, even the best ones, is that there’s little room to keep people guessing – we already know what’s happened in the past, and there is little room for guesswork over how the thing in the past happened. But, that aside, Ayckbourn has a long record of good plays in unusual formats, and this is no exception.

Ayckbourn’s news plays – and this is the same for all writers, no matter how prestigious – have a bit of a hit-and-miss element to them. That’s the way it should be; hit and miss is the product of taking risks, and legendary plays such as Woman in Mind would never have been written by playing it safe. But if you only have time to see one play an a Stephen Joseph Theatre season, I’d advise you to go for the old one. These have been through the hit and miss process, and if they’re good enough to come back for revivals, they’re doing something right.

Ez, Barry and the majorSo, this brings us on to the new play: Arrivals and Departures. Ayckbourn has over 70 plays under his belt and shows no intention of slowing down. One consequence of this (again, the same for most writers) is that new plays re-use the same themes as the old ones, mashed together into ever-new permutations. It can work extremely well – My Wonderful Day did this by re-using old themes of affairs and revenge with the added twist of the events as witnessed by a child – but there’s also a danger of ending up with a generic play.

This play combines the casts of Time of My Life and Facricals, with most of them playing several roles. It begins with moderately pompous major (Terence Booth) heading an undercover army at King’s Cross station. Grouchy soldier Ez (Elizabeth Boag) turns up with a traffic warden Barry (Kim Wall), who witnessed the man they are waiting for. Ez has two immediate problems on her hands. 1) The man they are looking for is highly dangerous terrorist. But the far worse problem: 2) Barry just won’t stop talking. As Barry natters away, Ez’s mind drifts back to earlier times, mostly airports and stations (yes folks, it’s called Arrivals and Departures for a reason). How she (then known as Esme) joined the army in the footsteps of her late father. How she ended up second priority to whoever her mother’s latest partner is. Her half-hearted relationship with another soldier – and what happened when he didn’t get his way with her. How the people around her preferred to cover things up than see justice done. The grouchiness is there for a reason.

But, wait! Act 2 begins part-way into act 1. Yes, 2013 is Ayckbourn time play season. Were you listening to Barry whittering away? Well, now you’ve got to listen to it again. Because it’s not the irrelevant fluff it first seemed; it’s all part of the equally sad back-story of Barry. That passing mention Barry gave to once running a business. That was something that younger Barry inherited from his father-in-law. So how come he’s a traffic warden now? That, unfortunately, came from Barry’s unquestioning trust of those around him: an accountant and friends who embezzles the business to bankruptcy; a wife who cheats on him; and a daughter who casually discards her devoted father for a man who apparently wants nothing to do with her family. And so, back in King’s Cross there is a paradox: one woman in the army, supposed to be the greatest place for camaraderie and friendship, who wants to shut herself off from the world; and one man who opens up to everyone in a world that wants nothing to do with him.

The problem I had with this play is that, good though the two back-stories were, I’m not sure they were suited to the setting of an anti-terrorist operation. When you’re expecting a highly dangerous terrorist to appear on the scene very shortly, this is quite a distraction on proceedings. When he finally appears, that scene is a short one, disjointed from Ez and Barry’s stories, and almost feels like an afterthought rather than an integral part of the play. Not sure if there was a better way of handling this, but I felt this weakened what was otherwise two good stories about people’s lives gone wrong.

But it wouldn’t be fair to dismiss the whole play on an insufficiently gripping climax. Most Ayckbourn plays don’t work like that; indeed last year’s revival of Absurd Person Singular begins and ends with life ongoing. The point of most plays isn’t to wait for an explosive ending but to reflect back on the complex stories and characters afterwards. There are probably better recent candidates to go down is history as Ayckbourn greats over the this one, but if we’re to see more Ayckbourn greats in the future, Ayckbourn is best off sticking to what he’s doing now.

The characters of Farcicals having one of their many argumentsAnd then comes Farcicals, this year’s offering of SJT lunchtime shows. Quick explanation for anyone who doesn’t know what lunchtime shows entail: every summer, alongside the main programme, the Stephen Joseph Theatre shows a pair of one-act plays on various lunchtimes. They used to take part in the restaurant but more recently have taken play upstairs in their small end-stage theatre. On some years they’ve shown two completely different plays, such as 2009 which ran Lee Hall’s classic Spoonface Steinberg alongside the recent and brillant Howard and Mimi by Caroline Gold, where the character are a dog and a cat. On other year they’ve done two connected plays, such as last year with John Godber and Jane Thornton’s Lost and Found. This year, Ayckbourn is providing the two plays: Chloë with Love and The Kidderminster Affair.

Now, normally when people describe plays of “Ayckbourn farces”, they blatantly haven’t paid enough attention to what the play is about. Even Taking Steps, often said to be Ayckbourn’s last pure farce, is I far too dark for me to call it a farce, at least not in the vein of trousers-fall-down-as-vicar-enters format that most people expect of farces. But, just for once, this pair of plays are exactly to kind of farce that Ayckbourn has shunned all these years, trousers fall down, identities are mistaken, and I’m pretty sure the only reason the vicar doesn’t enter was that he ran out of actors.

It’s almost as if Ayckbourn is catching up on 50 years of gags. All four characters are stock farcical characters here, with Terence Booth typecast as the usual pompous loverat (Teddy), and poor old Kim Wall typecast as the gullible man everyone walks over, again (Reggie). Elizabeth Boag and Sarah Stanley complete the cast as the two wives (Penny and Lottie). In Chloë with Love, Lottie is in so much despair over Teddy’s ogling of other women, Penny tries to disguise her as “Chloë” to see if Reggie takes any more interest. It’s a highly contrived story, even for a farce, but I suppose if there’s one man who would fail to recognise his own with it’s Teddy. In The Kidderminster Affair, Lottie confides with Penny of an unaccounted trip to Kiddermister – could it be another woman? Meanwhile, Reggie talks about his wife’s unaccounted visit to Kiddermister (which she says ws part of a birthday surprise which he spoilt by asking). Are these two events the same thing? It’s a farce, what do you think?

The obvious down-side? All four characters lack any sort of depth, beyond what is required to set up the jokes. To be fair, Ayckbourn has been quite upfront and honest about this – he doesn’t even try to give the characters any depth, and instead goes out of his way to work in jokes. He refrains from the cardinal sin of arranging the entire plot around build-ups to gags – those plays are rarely funny – but when the plays started working in tongue-twisters, it was a clear message that gags take priority over believability.

Probably the best thing to say about this pair of plays is that if your idea of a farce involves people falling over, you certainly won’t be disappointed. And if you’re one of these people who keeps complains that Ayckbourn spoils his farces with silly old depth and characterisation, this is the one for you. You probably will be disappointed if you were hoping for the usual dark comedy that Ayckbourn normally does so brilliantly. This is only a bit of fun, no-one claims it to be anything else, and this is is the context that the play should be judged for. Just don’t pick this one if you’re trying to demonstrate to a friend how much more there is to Ayckbourn plays than comedy.

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