Confusions, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, review: Vintage Alan Ayckbourn is funny, touching and clever

Ayckbourn himself directed this new production of his early play

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The Independent Culture

This is vintage Alan Ayckbourn and forty years on reveals more of the depths hinted at when this wine was young. To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Scarborough theatre in which his talent has been nurtured over four decades, Ayckbourn has, for the first time since 1974, directed a new production of this early play.

The little seaside theatre – grown bigger but no less intimate over the years – has been for over half a century a powerhouse of new writing under Joseph, then Ayckbourn and now Chris Monks. Later in the week it continues its celebration of works premiered here with a new production of The Woman in Black – which has been seen by seven million people in London’s West End and elsewhere since it first opened in Scarborough.

But the theatre has been above all the crucible for the talent of Ayckbourn – the only British playwright to have won Lifetime Achievement Awards at both the Oliviers and the Tonys.

In the early years Ayckbourn was dismissed by critics as a boulevardiste entertainer. But deeper and darker undercurrents always flowed through his work – and they are clearer now.

This production has turned Confusions into a period piece. Of course there is still the classic high farce which made him so popular over the years. The slapstick scene – after the local schoolteacher’s infidelity is broadcast over a  faulty loudspeaker during the rain-cursed summer fête – is still hilarious. But emphasising the Seventies’ setting underscores how delicately Ayckbourn was charting changing social and sexual mores as women were emerging from a domestic life bound by children and chores and entering a different trickier world.

The audience is still amused yet shocked by Elizabeth Boag’s portrait of a mother paradoxically infantilised by parenthood in a child-pressed home with an absent husband (a squirmingly embarrassing philandering Richard Stacey). But a loud groan ran round the audience in a restaurant scene, heard entirely through the ears of a waiter, when a young executive tells his wife: “Look darling, you wouldn’t understand if I told you” – a line which passed unnoticed in 1974. Ayckbourn knew what he was doing years before the rest of us.

Emma Manton is icily patrician and Russell Dixon nicely bumptious as the older diners but Stephen Billington steals the scene as the virtually wordless waiter.

The final scene in these five interlinked playlets subtly shows – in a sequence of dialogues of the deaf which would have been called absurdist had Pinter’s name been on them – the solipsistic fate of five of the characters some years down the line. Funny, touching and clever it is a splendid vehicle for a multi-talented quick character-change cast.

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