Alan Ayckbourn has hijacked the clown, that old tragicomic icon of theatres, and stuck its red nose on the face of modern celebrity. It's not always a comfy fit. Our most prolific and popular playwright seems to have forgotten, in his 66th play, Drowning on Dry Land, which he also directs, that the twists and turns in a storyline do need to be plausible rather than just the vehicle for a sequence of ideas, no matter how cunning they are in themselves.
His observations are often acute, but in the many strands making up the work's two disparate parts, I'm not sure that there is a play waiting to emerge in which we can be assured of the reason and logic behind the writer's often mercurial shifts of direction. The notion of a media phenomenon feted for being nobody, hailed for his spectacular ability to fail at everything he attempts, is a clever angle on television's obsession with spotlighting nonentities and honouring mediocrity. It gives rise to some extremely funny scenes and well-targeted, wry comments on the absurdity of contemporary life. As Charlie Conrad, Stephen Beckett presents an innocuous portrait of a golden boy, adored by the public, flattered by the press, protected by his manager and sought-after by sponsors.
Everything in the garden of his Victorian mansion, complete with folly, is not rosy, however. His glamorous wife is glibly frustrated with her trophy existence, and a pushy TV journalist is out to reveal whatever she can of the reality of his supposedly idyllic life.
Added to this is a garish caricature of a children's clown, all slapstick red mouth and squeaky shoes, braving it out in front of 200 children. Beneath the baggy breeches and floury-cheeked exterior of Mr Chortles, gamely portrayed by Sarah Moyle, there seems to be just a jobbing kids' entertainer.
But in a bizarre tangle of events, she undergoes an apparently unmotivated personality change, from silly girl to cynical litigant, making a damaging allegation. It's an inconsistency that weakens Ayckbourn's plot irreparably. The rise and fall of Mr Chortles' character, from pathetic to triumphant and back, is illustrated not in the physical contortions of the comedian but by her demolition through the psychological distortions of Charlie's breathtakingly manipulative lawyer. What amounts to an incongruous courtroom mini-drama sits uneasily in this setting, and while Stuart Fox makes a virtuoso job of his high-wire act, it would be just as convincing if he didn't shout so much.
Too many unconnected themes are thrown into the ring, too many issues straddled. In contrast to the lighthearted humour of the first act, a cloud of uncertainty settles on the second, as drug dealing, gay, relationships, prison, and changed identities are revealed, with misogynistic lines such as "90 per cent of women are peculiar" raising a ribald laugh.
"It is folly to drown on dry land" goes the proverb, but it is perhaps even greater folly to assume that, no matter how dazzling is the spin, you can make an audience defy gravity and believe anything.
Various dates to 11 September (01723 370541)
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