It took a few years to settle down after Alan Ayckbourn left as Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, but a pattern has finally emerged: the earlier summer season is where his artistic director successor does his stuff, with a revival of a successful earlier Ayckbourn introduced later in the summer, and then a new Ayckbourn play in September and October. 2017 was no exception. For once, I couldn’t catch them in Scarbourough, but luckily, I can count on a transfer to the New Vic that’s now in easy reach of me.
It is difficult to tell how new Ayckbourns will turn out in advance. Ayckbourn has a lot of tricks up his sleeves, but a lot of his new plays have been using old tricks in new ways. Don’t dismiss that – when it works well, it’s outstanding, but it’s always a bit a of pot luck involved to see how the new offering turns out. But the revival on offer is something that I recommended, not just because I know and like the play – but because this play is one of the few where it’s important to see it done by someone who knows how it’s meant to be done. That’s where we shall begin.
As any mainstream director worth his salt should know, almost all of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays are written to be performed in the round. Most of the time, it doesn’t matter that much if you see it on the end-stage, because they transfer quite well. However, Taking Steps is different in that it’s one of the few plays that really only works in the round. Set in all three storeys of an old house, Ayckbourn dealt with the challenge of how to stage this in the most Ayckbourn way possible, and bring all three floors on to one floor. People dash upstairs and downstairs on flat stairs, and someone tip-tapping in the bedroom causes someone on the same floor (or one floor down) looking up. Having seen this play on both end-stage and round, end-stage just doesn’t have the same effect. Perhaps it’s the expectations that on a normal stage, if there’s an upstairs you build an upstairs, but the round seems to work the best here.
There is one other distinguishing feature of Taking Steps, which is – in spite of all the talk of Ayckbourn farces – is a rare play that can actually be considered a farce. Between Relatively Speaking (which is a kind-of mild face) and Farcicals (where Ayckbourn went “sod it” and went the whole hog with trousers falling down etc.), this is the only play that really has enough co-incidences to count as one. Apart from aforementioned tip-tapping being mistaken by socially inept conveyancing lawyer Tristram for the murderous ghostly Scarlet Lucy, we also have Roland oblivious to the fact his wife Elizabeth is on the brink of leaving him tonight, Mark bringing back errant Kitty so that they can realised the dream they shared together (well, he shared together), and Leslie desperate to convert lease to sale before anyone realises how desperately he needs to money. As per any farce, things escalate quickly.
But there’s one thing that makes this different from other farces. It’s taken as a given that farce is a vehicle for comedy. Here, however, it’s more like a vehicle for tragedy. A normal farce would make Roland a cartoon villain. Here, however, useless husband though he is, Roland falls into deep depression when his wife goes, in turn setting up a mix-up over who took sleeping pills for what purpose, and who wrote which note for what purpose. But the most tragic character is Kitty. We never get a clear picture of the disastrous life she ran away to, but we quickly learn how bad the life is she fled from. Mark, it emerges, is caring on the outside but selfish on the inside, showing no consideration in what Kitty wants from life. Roland does at least have the defence of being too self-absorbed to realise how bad his marriage is getting, but Mark is more wilfully ignorant to Kitty’s unhappiness, to the point where he believes asking Kitty whether she’s rather they ran a fishing tackle shop all year or seasonally is giving her a say.
I often regard Ayckbourn plays as easy to get right but easier to get wrong – Taking Steps, however, is one that’s even easier to get wrong and not so easy to get right. Not that I had any reason to doubt Ayckbourn would get it right; I’d seen him direct the same play at the Orange Tree Theatre back in 2010, and whilst the cast might be different in 2017, the productions values were the same. The play might be nearly 40 years old, but Ayckbourn has not forgotten what’s important to this play and brought it out once more. To borrow on old adage: you don’t have to be Ayckbourn to direct this, but it helps.
A Brief History of Women
Now for this play. Alan Ayckbourn does not make his personal life public the way a lot of writers do, but from what we do know of his life, Ayckbourn considered his mother to be one of the greatest influences of his life. So when this play was billed as a story of an ordinary man and the extraordinary women who shaped him, I wondered if we might be in for his most autobiographical play yet. If it is, however, it’s not obvious to a casual observer. Set in four acts, twenty years between each one, it follows the story of Anthony Spates, each time a pivotal moment as a woman enters his life – a protector, an unfolding tragedy, a future wife, and finally a full circle. These women may well be based on real women somewhere in Ayckbourn’s life, but I’ll leave it up to others to guess that.
Anthony Spates, played by Anthony Eden in a remarkable turnaround of fortunes since the disastrous intervention in the Suez Canal back in his previous career, begins the story as a lowly servant in the grand country house Kirkbridge manor. To start with, it has a lot in common with Ayckbourn short Between Mouthfuls were a waiter goes between two couples and hears both sides of an affair. Spates goes to one room where the bullying master of the house tries to brief his new son-in-law on how to put women in their place, then goes to the drawing room and learns the wife’s side of the story. But unlike the waiter who only ever overheard, Spates gets involved and becomes part of the struggle. There’s a of different stories that Spates is privy too, but most of them will never be resolved. We must now move forwards twenty years.
Normally it would be frustrating to leave this many stories at loosed ends, but in this play, this is kind of the point. Spates’s story crosses with many others, but just like real life, most of the time he moves on before he can see how it ends. In the second act, where Spates is now a teacher at a girls’ school after the war, the German teacher is bullied by the other staff (actually Swiss, but she speaks German so that’s the same thing), but we never know how that pans out. In fact, the only constant presence in the story apart from the central character is Kirkbridge manor, which he always ends up returning to in one form or another.
Unusually for an Ayckbourn, however, there was one plot point I really disliked. (Spoiler alert.) At the end of the second act, a blossoming romance with another teacher is cut short by a tragedy. I can believe that she may never have let go in her mind the pilot killed in action she was going to marry. I can even just about believe she would mistake a dangerous firework for a return of her lost love. What I cannot believe, however, is that the other teachers who watch her run to a death would respond with quips. There would horror, there would be screaming, and our hero would not be reacting the sight of a horrific death of the woman he loves that calmly.
I try not to dwell to much of faults in plays, but when Alan Ayckbourn has such a strong track record in writing believable characters, it’s so frustrating for this to stick in my mind. Alan Ayckbourn being one of most vocal opponents sacrificing believability for the same of comedy, so I can’t understand why he did this. There so much I like about this play I ought to be remembering instead, such as the tangled web of plots and sub-plots that he plans so well. If you can look past this, you will enjoy the play. It’s just a shame that this unforced error stands in the way of what could have been another strong all-rounder.