AYCKBOURN AT IT AGAIN..OR IS IT
There’s tennis without a ball (audience requested to do plock-plock sound effects on drums), a mini-farce, thriller and horror story also supported by audience playing birdsong, creaks and sirens. Oh well. Theatre begins after all with the idea of play, and needs an audience to complete it. Modern “immersive” work is all the vogue and one must play with the genre, must one not? Hence this mixture of cabaret, charades, improv and a particularly inventive family Christmas game with a dash of Victorian illusion at the end.
Not everyone may realize straight off (I only just did) that it’s a spoof; Alan Ayckbourn himself relates in the programme a solemn story of taking the ensemble under his wing, first meeting spoofy magician Oliver Nelson and Karen Drake “of Frenzied Flyweheel” in a fictional fringe theatre, and pub encounters meeting the others – Rufus Wellington and Anna Raleigh , the invisible Kenneth Benbow and Alyssia Cook, whose names (plus their dutiful stage manager’s) spell out KARAOKE. Ayckbourn’s story ends with him having offered to direct and being told “Sorry, we feel we don’t really need a director”.
Yet must assume that he did direct this. In which case, the spoof has gone too far in its pretence at non-direction. Directors are aware of the importance of pace, and the small annoying austerities which, gently inflicted, keep shows moving. And this featherlight, meringue-sweet offering could have been, without spoiling the gag, made into something properly special with a bit of snappy authority.
The ball-less tennis is delightfully funny, especially when one audience member entrusted with a drum fails to do it and the player has to grunt. But it goes on too long. The setup for the farce, with Anna instructing the audience in sound-effects, takes too long, praising every volunteer and block so that self-applause slows it terribly. The 15-minute playlet itself is OK, if silly. In the period drama spoof with brilliant Georgian wigs and a nice sharp plot (borrowed, I suspect, from a Saki short story) we suffer the same slow-burn setup, and then the damn thing is repeated, with an audience member as a key character reading from boards. The Scandi-noir murder takes a different tactic, using volunteers as talking subtitles and muting the actors, and works far better, partly because on press night a middle-aged man in a tartan tie and glasses did a superb vocal turn as the glamorous maid, top screaming there, mate. And the Victorian Gothic is enlivened by some ingenious traditional spot-effects – coconuts, wind and rain machines and a thunder-sheet: the sort of stuff Ayckbourn and us theatre-nuts love.
The very able cast throw themselves into parody-acting with gusto nicely send up the rather impressive find-the-lady trick with three secret cabinets for a finale. And the audience laughed a lot, especially the young. I’d bring along any child or teenager with a taste for larks and theatre games, and sit them close to the front to get involved. And the props are great fun. But a spoof on theatre and theatricality has to be – well, properly theatrical. And, ideally, hold an edge of insecurity. This doesn’t. I love Ayckbourn for his contrariness and adventurousness, but this is a baffling use of nearly three hours…
box office 01723 370541 to 8th October