ALL the emotions on the spectrum were present in these two plays by Alan Ayckbourn, which neatly span
ALL the emotions on the spectrum were present in these two plays by Alan Ayckbourn, which neatly span his career so far, from the mid-Seventies and a butterfly-like set of sketches in Confusions, through to his latest offering, the darker and more sombre Hero’s Welcome.
Each play featured the same cast (plus one for Hero’s Welcome) and it was clear that all the members of this tight acting ensemble, touring with Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre and directed by Ayckbourn himself, know and love the man’s oeuvre.
Confusions allowed the cast to each take on several roles as we watched Mother Figure, Drinking Companion, Between Mouthfuls, Gosforth’s Fete and A Talk In The Park.
There were giggles in abundance as we were taken through comical vignettes offering glimpses into the way people live, with harassed mother Lucy taking on more than her children, businessman Harry whiling away a night in a hotel, two couples in a dining room with cleverly timed dimmed and raised voices between the table talk and more sound trickery in Gosforth’s Fete, with an impending storm, malfunctioning tea urns and some gossip inadvertently broadcast from a juddering tannoy. Finally, five figures on park benches have a dour series of conversations, in a kind of not-so-merry-go-round.
Ayckbourn’s witticisms shone throughout Confusions, some characters inviting our sympathy and others our dismay, but with an overall feel of slapstick hilarity.
With a real Seventies look on stage and in wardrobe, the characters were also timeless as their stories unravelled.
The actors did such a great job that when they came to take a bow, it felt as though there should be a large crowd of actors on the stage, rather than simply five.
On to Hero’s Welcome the following night and a very different tone.
Murray (Richard Stacey) is a war veteran returning to his home town with new bride Madrababacascabuna, or Baba for short (Evelyn Hoskins).
The happy couple are greeted with considerable tension by the town’s mayor — definitely not mayoress — Alice (Elizabeth Boag) and husband Derek (Russell Dixon), Murray’s erstwhile best buddy Brad (Stephen Billington) and stalwart wife and mother Kara (Emma Manton).
Murray and Baba are dreamers, hoping to rescue his family hotel from dereliction. We learn that mayor Alice has a tragic back story or several, having in the distant past had dalliances with both Brad and Murray but now sitting in her kitchen with just a cuppa and her husband’s grandiose yet mundane train set for company.
Meanwhile, young bride Baba strikes up a tentative friendship with Kara, who points her in the right direction to brush up on her language skills.
It transpires that Brad is a competitive bully with no respect for or fidelity to his wife, Alice’s health is less than stable and Kara has sacrificed a lot for her gilded cage.
As Murray and Baba make their plans clear, their return has inadvertently pushed some powerful detonator buttons.
With some very strong and well-acted scenes, albeit to a slightly depleted audience (I’m told that some Ayckbourn fans like their stuff tried and tested), this production built up to a murderous denouement, which juxtaposed with the lightheartedness of Confusions felt a bit grim.
However, the three-dimensional nature of all the characters made up for this, while Murray and Baba rising phoenix-like from the ashes ensured it was not a total downer.
Maybe that’s what results from a lifetime observing human foibles and frailties.
Review: Natalie Aldred
• ALAN Ayckbourn’s award-winning 1973 play
Round and Round the Garden
is at the Hexagon, Reading, from Thursday (February 25) to Saturday, February 27. For ticket information and bookings, call 0118 960 6060.