He's a dramatist famous for the devilish ingenuity of his construction. Not, of course, that an ingenious construct has any inherent virtue: its value depends on whether it gives an especially revealing purchase on what would otherwise remain obscure, and upon whether the specific revelation was worth the bother in the first place. The last two shows Ayckbourn brought to London (Time of My Life, which had, by his standards, a very short life at the Vaudeville, and Wildest Dreams, which is now playing at the Pit) struck me as meeting those requirements only imperfectly.
Both plays contain brilliant passages that are brought to tragicomic life by Ayckbourn's matchless ear for marital discord and blighted love. Their structure, however, permits both works to be altogether too systematically bleak and reductive. Time of My Life, for example, is set in the one restaurant but proceeds in three different time-scales, moving backwards and forwards from a birthday dinner that turns out to have been the family's Last Supper together. It's a highly artificial arrangement and you hope that it will justify its oddity by guiding you to some not-easily-attainable insight.
In the event, too many of the ironies produced simply ram home what is obvious enough from the start: that the lives of both the sons of this prosperous business family will be ruined because their incorrigible need for mother's approval distorts their relations with other women. You recoil slightly from the play's agile, repetitive dogmatism, particularly given that the structure and single setting impose irritating implausibilities. Would one of the sons and his wife really lunch less than a week later at the very eaterie from which the father drove to his death?
His new play, Communicating Doors, makes, therefore, a refreshing change. It is organised along an equally contrived time-hop sequence, but here there's no uncomfortable sense that the structure has been rigged so as to allow the audience to sit in sophisticated superiority over the protagonists. In what may well be a first in the Ayckbournian canon, the key figures in Communicating Doors are as aware as we are that they are moving around a time warp and use this knowledge, moreover, to push the comedy towards a heartening and touching conclusion.
Set throughout in the same opulent suite of the Regal Hotel, the action opens in 2014. Outside, there's a London ravaged by civil strife and bombs (Big Ben is among those for whom the bell has tolled). Inside, there's Poopay (Adie Allen), an engagingly straightforward dominatrix in leather bondage gear. Perplexed, she discovers that the only wrist-job her elderly client, Reece Wells, requires is her signature as witness to a document confessing all his business crimes and to the way he allowed his two wives to be murdered by his sinister colleague, Julian.
Unfortunately, even without sex, Reece winds up in spasm on the carpet, leaving poor Poopay, who has secreted the confession down the bidet plughole, on the run from the murderous colleague. Then something decidedly spooky happens. Emerging from the other side of the pokey cupboard between the communicating doors, she finds herself in the same suite and, stranger still, confronted by Ruella, Reece's second wife, whose spunky spirit is delightfully conveyed by Liz Crowther. Ruella is no ghost, either. She's alive and well and living in October 1994, though not for much longer if history runs true, for this is the very day on which, the confession reveals, Julian defenestrates her.
With the same door giving Ruella access, in turn, to 1974 and to young Reece's wedding night with his first wife Jessica (Sara Markland), the play could well have been called Suite in Three Keys, if Noel Coward hadn't already nabbed the title. The author's expert comedy-thriller production is pacy and highly amusing, but the time-hopping farce has the Ayckbournian thumb-print in its sympathies as well as its structure. Significantly, it never occurs to Ruella to confront the young Reece with the damning document of his life to come, or, in effect, to play the benign witch to his Macbeth. To have wrought a change of heart in him would have been a far greater victory than the more external and involved retinkerings with history that are effected.
Ruella's instinctive appeal to the first wife rather than to him (and the way three women from different periods end up literally pulling together to outwit the menfolk), reminds you that this play is by the author of the excellent Woman in Mind and other works of powerful, if unassuming, feminism. There's a wonderful moment when Nick Stringer's smug security guard, trying to haul the interloping Ruella out of Jessica's bridal suite, says you often get that type of snoopy middle-age female pathetically trying to relive her own honeymoon. Ruella virtually explodes with derision: 'You stupid little man, no woman in her right mind would want to relive her honeymoon . . .'
Filling out the character with a growing forlornness, Adie Allen's splendid performance as the dominatrix subliminally prepares you for the last beautiful and mysterious change in mood, the content of which I must not give away. For the spirit of the piece and the magical wish-fulfilment of the ending, you're prepared to give the niggles of contrivances (the Esher-like imponderability of the chronological curls; the odd fact that, say, the hotel decor remains unchanged over 40 years). It's when it gives you a needlessly intricate take on routine human misery that Ayckbourn's dazzling ingenuity seems misused.
'Communicating Doors' continues at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, Scarborough (Box office: 0723 370541)
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