Things we do for Love, Northcott, Exeter

How not to perform Ayckbourn
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The Independent Culture

Alan Ayckbourn is the second most commonly performed playwright after Shakespeare. So a theatre reviewer has plenty of opportunity to study how Ayckbourn can be played. There are two ways: the right way, and the "funny" way. The right way recognises that if you perform the script straight, without comic delivery and humorous characterisation, the laughs still come. And recognises that, while Ayckbourn successfully hits the funny bone of Middle England, a blow to the funny bone is usually accompanied by discomfort.

Unfortunately, Ben Crocker's production opts vigorously for the "funny" way. Whenever there is a wrong, but superficially comic way of doing something, Crocker seizes the moment with both hands. No opportunity for a cheap laugh is lost, regardless of the fact that it trashes both the acuity of Ayckbourn's vision and the essence of his material. Even the physical fight between the lovers Barbara (Lynette Edwards) and Hamish (Paul Antony-Barber) – a potentially shocking scene which provides a perfect contrast with the comic lines before and after it – is played virtually in slow motion, with pauses for the audience to chortle at some of the more hilarious blows.

The problem with this approach is that it puts the audience into permanent-laughter mode, rendering them immune to the bleakness that seeps into the piece like an old stain on fresh wallpaper. Instead of riding the carefully crafted emotional roller-coaster created by one of the world's finest bittersweet playwrights, they sit waiting for the next laugh cue, like the studio audience on a cheap TV sitcom. The silence from the auditorium during the more downbeat parts of the script is not the sound of an audience moved or discomfited: it is the abeyance of punters eagerly awaiting the next comedy set-up, so that they can laugh some more.

One cannot blame the audience for this: years of training by TV mean that if you give them a production played within the conventions of mediocre sitcom, that is how they will respond. Nor can one blame the cast. It is Crocker's responsibility to tell the actor Mike Burns that Gilbert is a complex, low-key, and essentially sad character who should not be played as though he were Colin, the hapless handyman, even if Burns played that role to great acclaim in the series The Brittas Empire. It is Crocker's responsibility to tell Sukie Smith that women who are still trapped in the throes of schoolgirl crushes are not necessarily lisping and gawky. And it is Crocker's responsibility to ensure that a stage production is not just a cheap rehash of TV's less inventive stereotypes, particularly when those stereotypes are forced willy-nilly on to a script that offers considerably more depth.

I described the Northcott Theatre's last production of Ayckbourn as "lulling the audience into laughter, leading them chortling to the point where they suddenly become unsure what exactly they were laughing at". It was a perfect example of how Ayckbourn should be staged. So it is particularly ironic that it is the Northcott that is now offering a definitive example of how Ayckbourn should not be staged – however much the audience may laugh.

To 15 September (01392 493493), and then at the Haymarket Theatre, Basingstoke (01256 465566) 18-29 Sept