Bedroom Farce, Duke of York's, London
Taking Steps, Orange Tree, Richmond
Behud, Belgrade, Coventry
A brace of Ayckbourn revivals shows the author's flair for comedy that is both touching and in touch
Sunday 04 April 2010
You wait for ages, then half a dozen come along at once – beds, in this case. Three of them are lined up side by side, for starters, in Peter Hall's enjoyable revival of Alan Ayckbourn's Bedroom Farce.
I should clarify, in case anyone is getting overexcited: this 1970s hit is not vintage theatrical Viagra. There's no rumpy-pumpy or stage nudity. Yes, Ayckbourn has teasingly moved the action into the inner chamber traditionally kept just offstage in farcical romps. But his humour resides in the lack of sex.
Delia and Ernest (Jenny Seagrove and David Horovitch) are propped up in bed in household number one, stage right. They are old-school, Home Counties propriety incarnate, she in a hairnet, he with a fogeyish little moustache. They're nibbling on a late-night snack, pilchards on toast being as hot as it gets.
Stage left, Tony Gardner's Nick is a generation younger but laid-up with an agonising bad back, a grumbling invalid. His is a boudoir in the original sense of the word, a sulking den. So his wife, Sara Crowe's Jan, plumps his pillows with with exasperated ferocity – eliciting a crescendo of yelps – and stomps off to Kate and Malcolm's housewarming party. These relatively new lovebirds, centre stage, giggle like kids. However, their domestic bliss is about to be sorely tested when the fourth couple – the absurdly tempestuous Susannah and Trevor – enter the equation.
Granted, one illicit clinch occurs between old flames, but what's touching is how Bedroom Farce is, ultimately, a portrait of long-suffering partners sticking with each other. It may be no match for Ayckbourn's trilogy, The Norman Conquests. But this piece, with its three households, amounts to a portrait of love through the years, from the honeymoon period to near-retirement.
What's also delightful is how affectionately Ayckbourn satirises mild bores, humdrum pillow talk about leaking roofs, and petty rages about flat-pack furniture. The chuckling this generates is that of instant recognition, and the pilchards scene is completely endearing.
In this West End transfer from the Rose, Kingston, Hall's cast are, in the main, very droll. Maybe Trevor and Susannah's brawl is on the feeble side, a bedside lamp waved around in slow motion, but Crowe's comic timing is spot on, and Finty Williams's Kate is subtly charming – dumpy and buoyant. Meanwhile, Daniel Betts's Malcolm offers one sharp flash of nastiness (when his prowess is bruised) and much hilarity, flailing and slamming doors.
A double whammy of Ayckbourns in one week seems excessive, nonetheless. Personally, I didn't laugh half as much at the playwright's own revival of Taking Steps (also from the 1970s), whose elaborately engineered plot is served by a cast of D caricatures.
Tiptoeing around a reportedly haunted country mansion, two ladies are doing a runner in an attempt to escape their dull and domineering partners. However, they each end up climbing into bed with a wide-eyed visitor, the nervous property lawyer Mr Watson who's also compelled to stay the night. He's stuck in the master bedroom while his host, the booze-sodden Roland, reels off to the attic guest room.
I'm not persuaded that the play's spatial joke – flattening a three-storey house so everything's on one level – is all that brilliant. Ayckbourn's cast of six do a lot of trotting up and down pretend stairs. Still, the Orange Tree's tiny stage means they're almost literally on top of one another, which ups the intimacy and fun. Michael Simkins is on great bombastic form as Roland, with Anna Francolini swishing around as his stroppy wife. And the romance that belatedly buds between Matthew Cottle's Mr Watson and Emily Pithon's timorous Kitty is quietly joyful.
In Behud, by the British-Asian playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, a fictionalised British-Asian playwright named Tarlochan Kaur Grewal looks as if she's on her deathbed in a white, dreamlike chamber. But then she rises and scribbles away at a script, manipulating a bunch of characters who pop in and out of numerous doors.
This is Bhatti's response to the violent protests, by outraged members of the Sikh community, which notoriously shut down the 2004 Birmingham Rep premiere of Behzti – her previous play, which depicted sexual abuse within a Sikh temple (of which there has, apparently, been no reported case in real life).
The furore, crushing free speech, sent Bhatti into hiding. Tarlochan (played by a troubled, scruffy Chetna Pandya) has, evidently, gone through something similar and is struggling to write about that. So, in spite of the multiple doors, Behud is no farce. Yet it is a unsettling mix of angry satire and Pirandellian shenanigans, blurring fact and fiction.
Strikingly, it's the Caucasian, supposedly liberal characters, who are most damningly depicted. Lucy Briers plays a shamelessly two-faced politico, and John Hodgkinson an artistic director who lies on TV news. He says Tarlochan wants her play pulled (which the Birmingham Rep's real-life AD, Jonathan Church, certainly did not do).
Church is hardly going to complain and close down Behud, so Bhatti is in no great danger there. Still, her conflating of invention and actuality in the case is problematic. That said, there is also a strain of authorial self-questioning, for Tarlochan stands accused of being a bitter fantasist. Bhatti also has the courage – or self-doubt? – to give the protesting Sikhs some of the strongest arguments in this new play. Behud may be structurally muddled, but it will at least encourage further debate when Lisa Goldman's sure-footed production transfers to London.
'Bedroom Farce' (0844 871 7623) to 10 Jul; 'Taking Steps' (020-8940 3633) to 28 May; 'Behud' (024-7655 3055) to 10 Apr, then Soho, London (020-7478 0100) 13 Apr to 8 May
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