This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com
The highlight of this comedy comes with what is probably the most ferocious man/woman fight scene conceived for the stage since Private Lives. High praise perhaps, but any comparison with Noel Coward must be the thing that Alan Ayckbourn dreads most. He built his reputation in the 1970s-90s with sharp observational comedies set mostly amongst the suburban English middle classes, but, increasingly, it is looking as if time has been rather unkind to some of his plays, robbing them of topical relevance and thereby exposing them for their lack of Coward-style wit. For all the flippancy of Private Lives, that play still has something meaningful to say about the nature of human relationships, whilst this one, Ayckbourn’s 51st, now feels vacuous, ! lacking in purpose and horribly dated, even though it is less than 20 years old. The play was generally well received on its West End opening in 1998, so have times changed that much or is it simply misjudgements in this production that have damaged it? In a converted Victorian house in Fulham, Barbara (Claire Price), a frigid career woman and committed spinster, is occupying the ground floor flat and letting the upstairs one to new tenants, Nikki (Natalie Imbruglia), an old school friend and her fiancé Hamish (Edward Bennett). These characters are post-Thatcher London yuppies, something of a departure for Ayckbourn, and he never seems quite comfortable with them or able to develop them to become credible. As soon as it is established that Barbara hates Hamish for being Scottish and a vegetarian and that he hates her for being Barbara, it is clear that a love triangle is sure to develop, even though the chemistry between Price and Bennett is most notable for its absence. However, the central point of the play does not emerge until just before the interval and, until then, we need to endure almost an hour of laboured, inconsequential chitchat. The actors, desperate to hear even the smallest ripples of laughter, often succumb to the temptation to overplay. This is seen in Imbruglia’s jumpy and excitable Nikki, but more so in a fourth character, basement-dweller Gilbert (Simon Gregor), a postman and a handyman who has a talent for fixing central heating and a fetish for wearing Barbara’s discarded clothes. Gregor makes a passable drunk, but, when sober, the weird inflections in his voice and his exaggerated postures seem as if they could be more at home in a cartoon. This production emphases the fact that Gilbert is a sad little working class man, then reiterates it and finally double underlines it. If this character was ever intended to have any dignity, Gregor never comes close to finding it. Multi-room sets are a common feature in Ayckbourn and here Giles Cadle’s design is rather effective. Barbara’s flat is in full view over a small section of the upper part of Gilbert’s; above is the lower quarter of Nikki and Hamish’s flat. The production looks handsome enough, but there is no escaping it – the main problem here is the play. The best of Ayckbourn’s later comedies tackle the darker undercurrents running beneath ordinary lives, but it is very difficult to find any depth at all to this one, still less anything to make us laugh. Eventually it just fizzles out in an awkward and unconvincing ending. Over two hours in the company of this irritating and unlikeable quartet could just be bearable were it not for the production’s quest for cheap laughs through its sneering and condescending depiction of Gilbert. This leaves a very nasty taste in the mouth and it flies in the face of modern day sensitivities every bit as much as the entire effort flies in the face of exciting new theatre.
Performance date: 19 May 2014