Review: Unhappy families

Sam Walters' revival of Alan Ayckbourn's `Family Circles' milks the dark humour of domestic conflict. By David Benedict
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The Independent Culture
Which one's which? That sounds a little like the title of an Alan Ayckbourn play. It isn't, but it is sometimes hard to identify his plays from their titles. If he hadn't been knighted, Britain's most performed dramatist after Shakespeare would probably have received the Queen's Award for Industry if only for the VAT from his ticket sales. He's pretty hot on the export trade, too, with recent productions as far afield as Japan, Poland, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Slovenia, Croatia and Taiwan. Anyone holidaying in Chile at the moment could even catch his Bedroom Farce. Family Circles began life in 1970 as The Story So Far and toured twice as Me Times Me Times Me. Sam Walters revived it at The Orange Tree under its present title, as did Ayckbourn in 1985, but it remains unpublished. With its echo of the cosy All Things Bright and Beautiful magazine on sale at supermarket checkouts, Family Circles sounds like a hymn to familial togetherness. Not quite. The circles are more like Dante's, but with considerably more laughs.

Three daughters trailing their husbands and lovers return to their middle- class family to celebrate their parents' wedding anniversary. Pregnant Jenny is the organiser whose plans are thrown into confusion when Deirdre arrives with a spanner in the works in the form of James, her boyfriend of 24 hours' standing. Last to arrive are tough Polly, "never really happy unless she's having a row with someone", and her wet, fretting husband David. No one, it seems, is happy with their partner. As their irascible, dahlia-obsessed father (Mark Kingston, on a permanent thunderously rolling boil) remarks, "We all marry the wrong people." Cue Jenny's bombshell: Father is plotting to murder mother, the alternately placatory and reproving Auriol Smith.

Just when it looks like everything is set up for a standard comedy-thriller, Ayckbourn springs his trademark surprise. Dogged naturalism goes out the window and the play turns into a farcical cross between Three Sisters and King Lear as the second scene opens with the daughters married to each other's husbands. The rest of the evening feels like a nightmare Home Counties comic spin on When We Are Married, with the audience switching between laughing at the lunatic antics of everyone trying to stop a suspected murder and sobering up to Ayckbourn's chilly view that, despite Tolstoy's remark, unhappy marriages are all alike.

Director Sam Walters milks every laugh from the material with a cast of Ayckbourn stalwarts. Occasionally, characterisations are overplayed, but Damien Matthews is hilariously baffled by the horrors of a family at full throttle, Philip York is marvellously relaxed as the bombastic Oliver and Emma Gregory is spot on as boisterous Deirdre, for whom coming home induces the reverse of homesickness.

The in-the-round seating of The Orange Tree is perfect for the hilarity of husbands and wives coming and going at alarming speed, and there are glorious moments like the beautifully set up climax where Jenny Funnell as Polly assaults her husband with the biscuit tin, but ultimately Ayckbourn's invention outruns the dramatic content. It's not in the same league as Absurd Person Singular, the early masterpiece that follows it, but that would be hoping for too much.

The Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, Surrey. Booking: 0181-940 3633. To 16 Feb.