Hero’s Welcome: Ayckbourn still marches on

2253Hero’s Welcome might be more “vanilla” Ayckbourn than the title suggests, but it’s still an excellent play showing Ayckbourn is no spent force.

One of the biggest bits of shock news of northern theatre this year has been Chris Monks’s unexpected departure from the Stephen Joseph Theatre after only six years. With both artistic and executive directors leaving in such a short space of time, the theatre has an uncertain future ahead of it. Luckily, the one constant force in this affair is Alan Ayckbourn, who in spite of having stepped down as artistic director himself in 2009, still produces new plays and revives classic plays. This is the one thing they can rely on.

Although Ayckbourn is still writing at the same rate he’s always done, after the excellent My Wonderful Day in 2009 there’d been a bit of a lull, with plays that were either sameish, or original ideas that didn’t quite work out. This changed in 2014 with Roundelay, a very skilled set of five interlinked plays. And one year on from that it’s time for Hero’s Welcome that does not disappoint.

One word of warning: Hero’s Welcome has less to do with the title theme than you might expect. The play begins with war veteran Murray being interviewed about the moment he saved the lives of thirty children, and one might expect the play to follow a veteran’s descent into PTSD after the world moves on. But actually, this is only a small thread of the story. Most of the story is of a small community where power-games and old resentments resurface with Murray’s arrival.

But whilst the subject matter of the play might have slid back into safe Ayckbourn territory, it’s a recipe for the strongest full-length play in six years. Some people are secretly not happy with Murray’s return: snobbish old friend Brad likes to be a big fish in a small pond and doesn’t like being upstaged; and Mayor Alice as a painful past involving both men. It doesn’t help that ultra-competitive Brad, previously used to beating Alice’s unfit husband Derek in every sport, get riled by Murray beating him in his favourite sport of shooting.

But there’s a strong theme running through the play, and that theme is of underestimated women. Murray brings a wife back from a warzone, Madrababcascabunu (or Baba). Some see her as a helpless victim of the war – and it’s hinted that she’s left something terrible behind – whilst others raise eyebrows of suspicion and see her as a freeloader. But she is neither greedy nor helpless, and she’s possibly the smartest of the lot, learning English very quickly and establishing herself in the community with little help from her troubled husband. But most underestimated is Brad’s wife Kara. With social ties cut, and every trace of self-esteem policed by her husband, neither Brad nor anyone else thinks she could be anything other than his docile property. But that will become a deadly error of judgement.

This is very much a classic Ayckbourn format of the village power struggle, with numerous sides, numerous conflicts and numerous grievances in the past, with the outsider shaking things up. And although Murray’s story as an ex-soldier is not the dominant plotline, it’s by no means an insignificant one, with a lingering worry throughout the play that something could snap at any moment.

There is only one small criticism I have of the play, and this is a minor niggle over Alice’s backstory. She carried the child of Brad who left her, she had the baby, and at some point a baby died when Derek was on the scene (something that indirectly led to his obsession with train sets, presumably an escape), but if if the baby that died was Brad’s or a later one of Derek’s, and if it was the former, when Derek was supposed to have arrived in Alice’s life. That bit of confusing timeline aside, Hero’s Welcome is another good play from a long-standing writer who is still no spent force at Scarborough. And right now, he couldn’t be needed more.

Also showing …

It’s actually been quite an Ayckbourn-heavy season in the north-east, with two other theatre companies putting productions of classic Ayckbourn plays. Ayckbourn by theatre companies other than Ayckbourn’s is a bit of a gamble, because it’s usually easy to do Ayckbourn well but easier to do it badly.

The People’s Theatre took on Ayckbourn classic A Chorus of Disapproval, which happens to be one of my personal favourites. The first of a string of five hits in the mid-1980s, this tells the story of widowed Guy, who joins a local amateur dramatics society currently producing The Beggar’s Opera, that turns out to be be the usual web of power-struggles, petty rivalries, affairs and outside business interests. Most amdram insiders will just nod going “yup, we know that one,” although PALOS takes the affairs one step further and has a partner-swapping couple. (Thinks: which society is this based on, and how can I get a part their plays?) Anyway, Guy turns out to be a bit of an unexpected hero, not because of his stage prowess, but because everyone seems to think he has some inside information about his company that could make someone rich. Without asking, he gets a favour here and there, until one day he suddenly becomes a pariah.

Amateur groups can be notorious for murdering Ayckbourn plays, especially if they think all you have to do is stand in a line and recite the script. Fortunately, I had faith the People’s would know what they were doing, as they frequently have professional actors in their cast. Also making a celebrity appearance was popular local writer Alison Carr, playing Bridget, the stage manager who punches actors in rehearsals. Slightly worryingly, she seemed to enjoy that part too much. To the best of my knowledge, Alison Carr does not go round punching people in real life, but I’d be grateful if someone who rehearses in her plays could confirm or deny this for me.

Anyway, the biggest challenge for this play is that it’s a large cast with lots of scenes, which makes this a logistical nightmare to produce. Get the blocking wrong and either the sightlines becomes a mess or the movement becomes contrived. Get the scene changes wrong and the pace grinds to a halt. So possibly the best testament to the good job done by the People’s is: we didn’t notice it at all. Added to this, the play well generally well cast with everyone suited to the roles they had – something that is often the bane of amateur Ayckbourn plays.

There is just one thing I felt could have been done better. In the original production, the sung passages from The Beggar’s Opera were sung beautifully and really added to the mood of the play. Here, the musical numbers felt very basic. They did sort-of make this work by changing it into a joke over how amateurish PALOS’s performances are, but it’s just not the same. I normally wouldn’t make an issue of this with a amateur performance, because musical direction to this standard is a lot to ask on top of the acting and directing. But I think if the People’s Theatre really put their mind to it, they could do it. Music and singing within plays is practically an industry standard in professional theatres nowadays – I do believe the People’s has what it takes to do the same.

indexAnd the other Ayckbourn play on offer was Absent Friends, this time a fully professional production from London Class Theatre on a national tour that performed at Durham, for two nights. This play is another one of my favourites. Written at the peak of Ayckbourn’s West End commercial success at a time when his plays were seen as farce, farce and more middle-class farce, this was the first play to take a departure into darker themes that would dominate his later plays. The play concerns Colin, who is invited to drinks with five friends in three failing marriages. Colin’s idyllic marriage, on the other hand, was over before it began when his new wife drowned.

Ayckbourn’s plays from this period are currently undergoing a significant revival. Dismissed for years as populist froth, they are now being rediscovered as insightful portrayal of Britain in the 1970s, where it went without saying that women didn’t have jobs, and most twentysomethings led lives little different from fiftysomethings. This is an important part of this play, and London Classic Theatre made a big thing of this in the play, and chose – quite rightly – not to transplant to the modern day.

But, whilst it was right to keep the play in the seventies, it just felt like they went overboard and tried to make the play into a stock seventies sitcom, with characters largely changed into stock seventies sitcom characters. But no Ayckbourn play is meant to be a sitcom. So many times, I saw opportunities in the script for characters to flare, or show their insecurity, or let their masks slip – but this all felt glossed over, with too much emphasis on trying to milk out laughs. Probably the most appropriate performance was from philandering husband John, whose quiet contempt for the whole tea party was far more effective than any comedy performance.

In the final part of the play, when the pretences finally give way, true are emotions are revealed, London Classic Theatre switched to a serious performance and that worked a lot better. This is a little frustrating, because there was no need for a switch. Had they done the first three quarters of a play the way they did the last quarter, I believe it would have done Ayckbourn proud.

Ultimately, what you have to realise about Ayckbourn plays is that they are plays first and comedies second. There is no need to chase laughs, but there is a need to keep the characters believable and truthful. The Stephen Joseph Theatre gets it, so does the People’s Theatre. I just wish more companies performing Ayckbourn would realise this.

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