Alan Ayckbourn's A Chorus of Disapproval, first seen at the National Theatre in 1984, is one of those plays that can sound fascinating in summary but promises rather more than it actually delivers. It's a problem compounded by Trevor Nunn's somewhat clunky and questionably cast revival.
The 1980s world of provincial greed, corruption, dodgy land deals and lechery is distortedly reflected here in the eighteenth-century hanky-panky with highwaymen, prostitutes and pimps in John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, a piece which the Pendon Amateur Light Operatic Society is seen rehearsing under the direction of a ghastly Welsh solicitor.
Through the character of Guy Jones – a young North Country widower who joins up in search of a new start – Ayckbourn fastens on one of his abiding themes: the havoc that can be wrought by the myopically well-meaning. Not from design but from a chronic inability to say no, Guy finds himself having concurrent affairs with two wives and, because mistakenly believed to have insider knowledge of the land deal, gradually elevated to the starring role of Macheath.
The intricacy of structure comes, however, at the expense of any real depth of characterisation – a difficulty not addressed by the direction in this entertaining, if doggedly broad revival. Rob Brydon gives a comic tour de force as Dafydd Ap Llewellyn, the failed actor and exhaustingly Welsh whirlwind of directorial earnestness.
But the portrayal is arguably too winning and clues as to the demons that have driven this man to blinkered egomania go undeveloped. It was a mystery to me why Nigel Harman's Guy had to start off as a gormlessly grinning booby as though widower-hood was well-known to lower the IQ or why, in the roles of the diametrically dissimilar wives he beds (Dafydd's love-starved spouse and a predatory swinger) Nunn has cast actresses who would seem almost as good the other way round.
There are some hilarious sequences (like Nigel's cross-purpose conversation with the swinger where sexual and culinary preferences get confused) and moving ones too (like the break-up of one of the affairs while a purblind, cuckolded Dafydd plots his lighting round the tearful couple).
But the am-dram musical sequences fall back on coarse and slightly belittling cliches – which is a tad ironic in a production where it is not just The Beggar's Opera scenery that wobbles.
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