THEATRE / Dinner dancing: Paul Taylor reviews Alan Ayckbourn's new play A Time of My Life at the Vaudeville

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The Independent Culture
WATCHING Alan Ayckbourn's new play Time of My Life, I was reminded of a horrible dream I had a while back. Setting: a large Oxford restaurant that I've frequented countless times over many years. I was at the bar waiting for my guests to arrive, when all of a sudden I spotted something that made me sweat with panic and embarrassment. At every table, there I was, plus all the folk (spouse, children, friends, enemies) I'd ever eaten with there in a ghastly simultaneous replay of scores of forgotten lunches and dinners. I had to stop these people noticing one another; above all, my guests (whose identity I couldn't remember) must on no account witness the scene. Too late, for this figure is now crossing the threshold. My god, it's me . . .]]] What could it all signify I wondered on waking? 'Megalomania?' suggested my wife.

Time plays funny tricks in the spoofed Greek(ish) restaurant up north that is the setting for Ayckbourn's bleak comedy. But, as you might imagine with this dramatist at the controls, we're offered nothing so simple as simultaneity. At the start, we're plunged into the final stages of a sticky dinner party celebrating the 54th birthday of Laura (superb Gwen Taylor), the dour, formidable matriarch of the Stratton family, whose prosperous building firm is just starting to be hit by the recession. The not-so-oblique withering remark is her forte and having to duck from them the fate of everyone else. Her doted-on younger boy Adam (Stephen Mapes) has brought a new girlfriend (Sophie Heyman) who mother clearly loathed at first sight. Glyn (Richard Garnett), the roving, shallow older son has evidently been blackmailed into patching things up, for the occasion, with his estranged, well-meaning, slightly anorexic wife (Karen Drury). As the two young couples depart, time in the restaurant splits into three strands, the play hopping from one to another. A succession of lunches a deux featuring Glyn and his wife pushes the story into the future beyond the birthday 'do' which was, it quickly becomes plain, the family's Last Supper. Time goes into rewind for the other son and his girlfriend, skipping back meal by meal to the farcical misunderstandings of their first encounter. Meanwhile, amid the debris of the original dinner, and over far too many brandies, Laura and her genial stuffy husband (Anton Rodgers) pick at the scabs on their less-than-idyllic relationship and wistfully recall first love.

While it's handy for creating revealing ironies, this strange structure also imposes irritating artificialities on the story. I'm not prepared to believe, for example, that Glyn and his wife would choose to lunch a mere week later at the very restaurant from which, it turns out, the father drove to his death. And, while there are a number of very funny moments in Ayckbourn's skilfully acted production, the over-riding impression is one of willful, systematic negativity. The before-and- after scenes adroitly supplement the depressing sense you have from the start that the lives of both boys are ruined because the need for mother's approval distorts their relations with other women. It's clear, too, from what we hear about her, that Laura goes on to have a whale of a widowhood, so maybe the long years of loyalty to her husband were a mistake. Not a play for honeymooners.

Box office: 071-836 9987.

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