Whips, chains and a future imperfect

COMMUNICATING DOORS By Alan Ayckbourn Gielgud Theatre, London
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The Independent Online
Alan Ayckbourn's 46th play is in some ways his boldest. It is his first attempt at a comedy thriller, the hardest genre to pull of successfully. As if this were not enough, the black farce takes place within the framework of time travel.

The play appears to start familarly. Poopay, a dominatrix, played by Adie Allen, arrives at a hotel suite in the year 2014 with whips and chains for "a bit of fun and pain".

But her client turns out to be a wheezing, limping old man who wants her only to witness his confession about the murder of his first two wives.

This is almost recognisable Ayckbourn territory, where bawdy sexual humour coexists with dark forces. But rapidly we move on to a different plane. As Poopay is about herself to be murdered, she discovers a time machine through the communicating door which takes her back 20 years to drop in on her client's second wife, Ruella, played by Julia McKenzie, who herself goes back a further 20 years to interrupt her husband's honeymoon with his first wife with hilarious consequences.

Between them, the women attempt to stop the murders happening. It certainly succeeds as a comedy thriller with the audience in turn roaring with laughter and leaping forward in fright.

The musical allusions to Hitchcock's Psycho are a little heavy-handed, as indeed is Ayckbourn's assertion in the programme that his play "is not dissimilar to something Alfred Hitchcock might have wanted to stage". But Ayckbourn has used music in his plays for children and now has helped to make it an appropriate backcloth in an adult play.

As Ruella, Julia McKenzie gives a delightful performance, her comic timing a joy, and she has an admirable foil in Adie Allen as Miss Whiplash. Their gift for farce makes for a thoroughly diverting evening.

And yet. And yet. One leaves the theatre somehow dissatisfied. It is really because we expect more from Ayckbourn. His best work, not least Women In Mind, which also had Miss McKenzie in a leading role, has managed to delve deep beneath the surface of human and particularly family relationships even in the most surreal circumstances.

This play does not. It is a clever but ultimately superficial comedy. And Ayckbourn fans awaiting the dramatist's return to top form may feel he is still marking time, albeit with characteristic aplomb.