Michael Palin once wrote a fine TV play called East of Ipswich which gently but powerfully evoked what it's like to be trapped on a seaside holiday with bickering parents when you are an adolescent whose hormones are just starting to hum. The piece had the authentic texture of reimagined personal experience, so the news that Palin's first stage play, The Weekend, also drew on the oppressive married life of his mum and dad was quite an appetite-whetter.
Barricaded behind his Daily Telegraph, Richard Wilson as Stephen, the father, wastes no time before launching into a relentless reprise of the garrulous curmudgeon routine that has made him a household name. His wife Virginia (Angela Thorne) drifts about with an abstracted, stoical air and, though you know that the problem is a lack of communication, you feel that a sudden attack of mutism on Stephen's part might do this marriage no end of good.
A sub-sub-Ayckbournian exercise - not helped by the over-emphatic, reppy atmosphere of Robin Lefevre's production - Palin's play steers a predictable course through the perils of a weekend visit from the couple's daughter and family. To keep the laugh-level mechanically high, this last group includes an incontinent dog and a husband who is to the motorways of England what the Speaking Clock is to time. What is missing is the crucial Ayckbourn knack of revealing the most painful truths about family dysfunction precisely when the comedy is at its most uproarious.
Instead, the play keeps taking the easy way out. For example, Stephen's eventual revelations - concerning the secret failure and humiliation that have turned him into this cantankerous tyrant - emerge not in the rough-and-tumble of the weekend as a whole, but over a cup of tea with his wife in the middle of the night.
This scene has too much the air of a safely cordoned-off textbook explanation to be moving, despite the fine performances. The characters don't develop, they just suddenly come clean. It's the sort of play that requires you to believe Stephen has a serious drink problem, while treating it in a reassuringly upbeat manner. Some of the gags related to this are good - as when the wife, using the eyes in the back of her head, says 'Having another one?' to her husband who has sneaked over to the drinks cabinet. 'No, just getting the bottle out to check the spelling on the label,' comes the sarky reply.
It gets a big laugh, but you get the impression that the script's jokiness, far from heightening a sense of the underlying pain, is there to render it palatable. And it's that that sets your teeth on edge.
At the Strand Theatre, WC2 (booking: 071-930 8800)
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