THE CLASSIC COMEDY OF CLASS AND CONFUSION
We’re back in the 1960’s, and how! Beyond the jolly geometric curtain a bygone world revives. Shiny pink plastic boots, a ridiculous frilled sub-Laura-Ashley print dinner frock. Nicholas le Prevost doing breathless “Swedish jerks” before setting out for work with bowler and brolly, and coming home to prod suspiciously at an avocado pear , while entertaining a shy colleague for the sake of old-fashioned departmental teamwork. A lost world teeters uncomfortably between postwar formalities and hierarchies and the irreverent modern era. Julie Godfrey’s set straddles lifestyles, one sitting room representing two as cheap clutter and middle-aged Hyacinth-Bouquet gentility interweave: a sofa-cover changes two seats along ,or clothes dry on a baby’s playpen next to a grand French window.
In this we watch three very English marriages in three classes: Frank and Fiona are upper-management, she content with her economic, if not her sexual, fate, he an amiable bumbler with a streak of earnest sentimentality. Bob and Terry are younger, scrappy and sexy: he rising at work, she frustrated by babycare, writing letters to The Guardian and wanting a place in the world. Between them, stuck as it were back in the ‘40s, the Uriah-Heepish William is a meek accountant dominating and patronizing his still meeker wife Mary (“You have no idea how much work I’ve put into that woman”).
But never mind the social analysis, though in Alan Ayckbourn it is always lurking; this is a hoot, one of the craftiest , most theatrically innovative farces-of-manners we have, from the start of the great man’s career. Director Alan Strachan sets it firmly in its period, not only to make sense of the phone calls which sometimes drive the plot, but to emphasise that it is as much about class and status as mere adultery. That is going on, we rapidly learn, between Bob, fed up with his disaffected young-mother wife Terry (Tamzin Outhwaits), and posh bored Fiona . Jenny Seagrove as Fiona is gloriously poised (worth the ticket to hear her say the word “Woking”) and nicely mean in her dismissive attitude to her husband Frank.
Who, in the hands of Nicholas le Prevost, is a glorious, downright adorable anchor to the piece. Hapless and well-intentioned, virtuous and kind and disastrous as the complications unfold, exuding a kind of happy doomed optimism, he’s a dream. In a strong cast another standout is Gillian Wright as mousy Mary: respect for some some brilliantly awkward cardigan-and-glove work, apparently genuine hiccups, a credible earnestness when she grows a bit and resolves to “help” after Bob’s meltdown, and a killer delivery of her last line. Apologizing for her husband’s inability to apologize she murmurs “It’s hard for him. He’s never been wrong before”. As to Matthew Cottle’s William, I have never known an actor so good at blushing bright red, to order….
The remarkable staging is deftly used: way ahead of its time, Ayckbourn puts the actors in two places and sometimes two different days at once, while sharing the set or even the same sofa and table, and seeming obvlivious of one another. The famous dinner-table sequence is matchless: Ayckbourn’s syncopation of mood as elegant as a fugue , our complicity in the pretence just pure, unfilmable theatre. Hard to imagine it being done better. Head for the cheese, mice!
box office 0207 930 8800 http://www.trh.co.uk to 25 June