79 NOT OUT – AYCKBOURN, AT IT AGAIN
Suns decline, new stars rise. This is Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s 79th play – not among his best, but when did genius ever run level? But it is also, under the author’s direction, the moment of a really lovely professional debut for Terenia Edwards, the youngest cast member and an innocently luminous presence. She plays “Madrababacascabuna”, the young wife of indeterminate nationality brought home by the bemedalled Murray (Richard Stacey). He is fresh out of khaki in some equally indeterminate war zone, having braved snipers and rescued children from a burning hospital. Returning to a civic welcome in his Yorkshire hometown after 17 years, he dreams of reopening the derelict family hotel (his Dad drank most of it near the end).
But his reception is not universally warm. Even grumpier and more vile to his wife than usual is the posh, lecherous Brad, Murray’s old schoolfriend and rival (a nice villainous turn by Stephen Billington, looking uncannily like a young Simon Williams) . Frozen-faced with rage is the Mayor Alice, who he left pregnant at the altar when he fled. Now, as Council chief and property-developer, she wants only to pull down the hotel for apartments and high-end retail. There are, of course, two versions of what actually happened between Alice, Brad and Murray all those years ago.
So it’s a play about lies, and bitter memory, and smalltown jockeying for advantage, and the pitfalls of marrying-up or marrying-down, and the idea of a hero. And the ingredients don’t really meld together as well as they should. Plenty of nice Ayckbournian middle-class awkwardnesses, like the moment when joshing about the tricky ring-road makes Alice snap that “hours in committee” were devoted to getting it right; and there’s a touching performance by Emma Manton as Brad’s wife, brightly reconciled (until the crisis) to a contemptuous and imprisoning marriage in a semi-stately home. (“A prison where you can at least decorate your own cell”).
Most of the comedy – tinged with a ruefully dark explanation – comes rom the glorious Russell Dixon as Derek, the cheery downmarket mayoral consort, the husband Alice settled for; he infests the whole house with a vast train-set (we see the kitchen bit, and hear the rest hooting and rattling offstage from lounge to bedroom). Derek is an innocent who means well and lets cats out of bags; for Brad he is the necessary loser, just as Murray is the unwelcome winner (they shoot clays together, and yes, Sir Alan obeys the first rule of theatre – that if you have a gun lying around in Act 1, it had better go off in Act 3.)
But the greatest pleasure is Terenia Edwards as “Baba”, at first barely speaking English, but growing in vocabulary and confidence to become the strongest and most decent of them all: “goodness writes white” they say, and actors often dislike attempting it; but she makes the most of the innocent’s perception (“Murray, why they all hate you?”) and of the eccentric appositeness of her vocabulary acquisition (“Me-na-cing… o-mi-nous…pre-da-tory” when with Brad, but then “Endure. Con-flict. Hosti-lities. Action!”).
There are more problems than is comfortable. I don’t quite believe in a sudden woman-to-woman rapprochement between Alice and Baba; nor am I sure why Alice collapses, or of what illness. The ending is – for two protagonists at least – a gentle and soft landing, though offstage lies death, arrest, and a deeply unwelcome refinement of the train-set. Still, I was never bored.
Box office 01723 370541 to 3 october
rating : three