Nice House, shame about the Garden

House/Garden | <i>National Theatre</i>; My Pal Joey | <i>Minerva, Chichester</i>
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The Independent Culture

House and Garden is Alan Ayckbourn's new comical double whammy, transferring from his theatre in Scarborough to the National. What's physically exciting and technically clever about this show is that it's a full story split in two. Ayckbourn's admirable (and presumably now very fit) cast perform both halves simultaneously, racing to and fro along backstage corridors to play carefully timed scenes on both the Lyttelton and the Olivier stages. After witnessing either House or Garden, you can swap theatres to see how the other half went as the actors run through the whole thing again.

House and Garden is Alan Ayckbourn's new comical double whammy, transferring from his theatre in Scarborough to the National. What's physically exciting and technically clever about this show is that it's a full story split in two. Ayckbourn's admirable (and presumably now very fit) cast perform both halves simultaneously, racing to and fro along backstage corridors to play carefully timed scenes on both the Lyttelton and the Olivier stages. After witnessing either House or Garden, you can swap theatres to see how the other half went as the actors run through the whole thing again.

For House (in the Lyttelton) we are indoors in the English country mansion of upper-crust husband and wife, Teddy and Trish Platt. The library looks cosily lived in. The Platt's adolescent daughter Sally has left her board games stuffed between the marble shelves.

But marital disaffection has taken a potentially crazy turn. Jane Asher's elegant, brisk Trish seems to be busying herself with domestic trifles - tidying and working out the place settings for Sunday lunch. However, she's got a near-surreal blind spot. She intractably refuses to acknowledge that the self-obsessed and indecently gallivanting Teddy (David Haig) even exists. Apparently imperviously, she swings the dining-room doors shut within an inch of his nose, and she blithely rearranges the furniture so that an elegant lampshade blocks him from view.

Teddy is desperate to impress an old school chum called Gavin Ryng-Mayne (Malcolm Sinclair) who's arriving for lunch, is frightfully well-connected and who might ask Teddy to stand for the PM's party at the local election. The embittered Trish is obviously going to create havoc. And their neighbour Giles (Michael Siberry) is about to be told that his wife, Joanna, is Teddy's mistress. A continental film-star is on the guest list too; she can't speak English or take her drink. Meanwhile, someone may have designs on Charlie Hayes's precocious Sally.

When we head out into the grounds for Garden (in the Olivier), we learn what various pairs of characters got up to when they nipped out of the French windows during House. With a hint of rustic pastoral we see more of the staff and the lower classes, as they mow the lawns, set up a fête, flirt within their own love triangles and try to ignore Sian Thomas's jilted Joanna as she goes mad as a March hare in the bushes.

House is frequently hilariously funny. Ayckbourn seems inspired here, producing dozens of corking lines. Ryng-Mayne, describing his supposedly filthy sexual fantasies, memorably flips into wonderful silliness as Gideon Bibles get involved. Roger Glossop's grand sets are splendid as well.

However, it must be said, Garden is rather a disappointment narratively. The action feels diffuse, the dialogue is sometimes repetitive, the interconnections between the two plays are not as neat as you might expect, and there aren't that many surprise revelations. I suppose the fact that you can see the plays either way round means that there can't be a strong climax, either.

Characters' heart-to-hearts can sound wooden and authorially didactic. Nevertheless, Ayckbourn is asking searching questions about selfishness and decency, about families' failures to communicate, and about the courage it takes to quit failing partnerships.

As for the cast, Thomas's ravings seem too crudely exaggerated, but Sinclair - politic, smarmy and sneering by turns - is monstrously funny and chilling while Siberry's affable Giles has poignant depths of sadness. Haig is outstanding, tying himself in exasperated knots (with echoes of Basil Fawlty), blending folly and loveable charisma with serious caddishness.

The womanising protagonist is less appealing in My Pal Joey, Rodgers and Hart's musical from 1940 that's getting a rare revival at the Minerva, Chichester. Maybe Martin Crewes, playing the eponymous Chicago nightclub MC who compulsively schmoozes dames, just needs to relax into his role. He's small and perfectly formed - distinctly resembling Tom Cruise - but he's not got enough twinkle at present to explain why even some sophisticated women fall for his moves. I also occasionally baulked at Craig Revel Horwood's soft porn-style choreography. I got an eyeful of the chorus girls' scantily clad butts one too many times.

Still, those are the only cavils I have with Loveday Ingram's swish, spry and compact production. Peter McKintosh's set - with its curvaceous cabaret stage of dark oak boards - is simple, sleek and warm. Martin Lowe's live jazz band is visibly having a blast. Susannah Fellows as Vera, the rich older woman who makes Joey her toyboy, sings "Bewitched" with winning tenderness. Meanwhile, Michelle Hodgson as cool cat Gladys Bumps, tap dances with fabulous loose-limbed ease.

'House' and 'Garden': RNT Lyttelton and Olivier, SE1 (020 7452 3000); 'My Pal Joey': Minerva, Chichester (01243 781 312), to 2 Sept

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