SHIP OF FOOLS GOES AGAINST THE FLOW…
This is the play which flooded the Lyttelton stage and the National Theatre electrics in 1982. Of all Alan Ayckbourn’s massive oeuvre it is one of the rarest : not surprising given they tech demands. . Nadia Fall’s involves turning the Chichester stage into a segment of river with 65,000 litres of water, deep enough for several cast members to fall or dive into, surrounded by real towering trees and vegetation . On it floats a tubby 21ft cabin-cruiser which can be fired up, moved, moored, wobble underfoot and jerk its passengers around. Credit to designer Ben Stones, to Tim Mitchell’s lighting – sunrises, blackouts and odd semi-strobe interludes – and Fergus O”Hare’s sound with a storm scene, chirping crickets and some weird, tense passages of score. And technical co-ordinator Sam Garner-Gibbons deserves a palm for sheer nerve.
But goodness, it’s an odd piece, as if Ayckbourn in mid-career set out to give us one play and finding himself tangled in a sudden anger abruptly bolted on a different one halfway. With considerable success in the first act he gives us thoughtful observational comedy mining his characteristic vision of marital disillusion, temperamental absurdity and benign moral puzzlement at what fools we mortals be. Keith – Peter Forbes – has persuaded his indecisive business partner Alistair (Jason Hughes) to share a hire boat upstream to Armageddon Bridge. His wife June, a marvellously brassy and discontented Sarah Parish, can’t stand him. The other wife Emma (Jill Halfpenny) is sweeter, but disappointed in Alistair’s floppy temperament.
Keith fancies himself as skipper, but is both incompetent and unable to take his mind off his ailing factory, summoning his secretary (Nicola Sloane) to the riverbank; a botched mooring sequence is so technically and comically perfect that it got a round of applause, as the hapless PA in a neat lemon-yellow business suit is dragged skidding on the muddy grass amid confused shrieks and wrong instructions. When Alistair runs the boat aground they are rescued by an alpha-male in ripped denim: Jason Durr as Vince, who Poldarkily gets his shirt off. June immediately cheers up no end, and Keith is manipulated into subservience.
So far, so sitcom. And we all loved it (well, Chichester knows about boats and their delusional effect on chaps). One colleague complains it is dated, because now they would have mobile phones rather than make a secretary gallop along the bank: how little he knows of rural Vodafone-deserts, it could still happen.
But it isn’t dating that’s its problem. The name Armageddon hints that the second half turns darker, stranger, odder. Vince’s controlling behaviour, which starts with a funny if Orwellian ploy of claiming new names for parts of the boat – gaffters, weevildecks, piggles – becomes a fascist reign of terror alleviated by sadistic drunken orgies and the unnecessary arrival of an equally manipulative sexpot, Fleur. The bullying becomes very Lord of the Flies, and starts to stretch credulity. When a fake river feels more real than the behaviour on it, theatre has a problem.
So the final development never took me with it beyond the (certainly glorious) moment when June does a drunken cabaretnumber in black suspenders. By the time we get to the marooning, near-drowning and potentially fatal fight, not to mention the point when two of them may possibly be in heaven, I had lost it. Even if it is, as some say, a political allegory of Britain turning to the right or a reference to the medieval Ship of Fools. But until the last quarter it was entertaining all the way, the cast superb whether wet or dry, and the staging remarkable.
box office 01243 781312 cft.org.uk to 16 May