If I Were You, Library Theatre, Manchester
Thursday 12 June 2008
Ever imagined yourself inside your husband's (or wife's) body? No, me neither, but Alan Ayckbourn has a vivid idea of what if must be like to find yourself with the physical attributes of the opposite sex while retaining your own personality.
If I Were You, whose progress was interrupted by Ayckbourn's stroke in 2006, begins as a depressing glimpse into the mundane lives of an ordinary couple waking to another dull day. Mal Rodale's early morning chorus of belching, coughing and grunting marks him out as an insensitive boor. His wife, Jill, slopes around in a state of twilit life, scarcely bothering to dress, and going vacuously through the motions of looking after their children. Chrissie, married to one of her dad's sales team, is a struggling mother herself, while sensitive teenager Sam is showing an interest in drama, to macho Mal's horror.
It's clear from the ingenious single set – designed by Dawn Allsopp – that the Rodales have recently had a new kitchen installed from the department store of which Mal is, unbelievably, sales manager. Their dowdy bedroom will surely be next for refreshing, the lounge transformation not far off.
The Rodales' marriage needs more than a makeover. After a series of tense domestic exchanges and work crises, the couple's relationship appears to be heading for the rocks.
Just then, however, Ayckbourn brings about a complete change. With no explanation, husband and wife wake the next morning to find themselves inhabiting each other's body. With this sex swap, the playwright challenges the two principal actors – Mal, jaded and insecure in Bill Champion's portrayal, and the pitifully haggard and neutered Jill, captured by Meriel Scholfield – to grapple for a new perspective as Jill and Mal, now in dramatically altered circumstances.
Once the long set-up, more bleak than amusing, is out of the way, the play becomes much funnier. Jill tempers the sales manager's bullying manner with female intuition and understanding, while Mal struggles to cope with domestic chores and rediscovers the pleasure of communicating with the children.
As the cheating husband Mal (temporarily Jill) gently lets down "Tricksie" (his bit on the side), while Jill (temporarily Mal) knocks out their wife-hitting son-in-law. Chris Honer's fine production packs a punch too, with comic absurdities all the sharper for being in such contrast to the dismal domestic background against which they are thrown up.
To 21 June (0161-236 7110)
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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