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The big “if”: Family Circles

by on 12 November 2015

Family Circles

by Alan Ayckbourn

Hampton Hill Theatre


Review by Mark Aspen


In the way that mothers always accurately distil wisdom, my mother used to say, “If … is a little word with a very big meaning”.   However, for Emma, the mother of the Gray family in Alan Ayckbourn’s Family Circles, her invitation to the parents’ wedding anniversary weekend dissolves a whole lot of what-ifs into a hot flask of Ayckbourn legerdemain.

It is in the filtering out of the essence of this almost plot-less play that OHADS’ recent production is to be lauded. If it were not for the cast’s very fine acting, Ayckbourn’s over-clever working of a weak farce would have left Hampton Hill Theatre’s audience lost and bemused.  (However possibly not as bemused as they probably are about why the grander sounding Hampton Hill Playhouse has acquired a new and very pedestrian nom de guerre.)

We soon see that Edward Gray’s initial taciturnity when confronted with his garrulous wife, Emma, is his way of saving his energy for later grumpy outbursts as his daily routine is broken by the arrival of his three daughters, who are reluctantly attending the celebrations with their even more reluctant other halves.

Pregnant Jenny regards herself as the put-upon expectant mum who is expected to be mumsy. Highly-strung and fussy she is “always the one who whines” according to her sisters.  On with the apron and straight into the kitchen, Mills Ross busied herself in this role as an excitable and twangy Jenny. Her husband, Oliver is a successful businessman for whom the distraction of the weekend is a nuisance to be swatted away with indifference. Daniel Wain gave us a starchy, sardonic and senatorial character, whose haughty half-smiles belied his impatience.

Then in bursts the second sister, the free-spirited and flirtatious Deirdre. Julie Davies was effervescent in this role, in which she clearly enjoyed exploiting the character’s devil-may-care attitude.   Deidre, it seems, comes every year with a new man in tow.  This year is no exception and the lucky man is James, a hooray Henry pulled straight from the squash court still in his white shorts.  Embarrassed and bemused, James, now dubbed by Deidre with the soubriquet Jaz, struggles to fit in.  Ashton Cull, as the fish-out-of-water current suitor portrayed a superbly uncomfortable Jaz, punctuating his conversation with dry little laughs.

Enter Polly, a pitiless, pomaded power house, sweeping in behind her husband David, a nervous self-deprecating, pill-popping hypochondriac. Elspeth Adam played Polly with all the self-assurance that the part demanded, while Brendan Leddy’s David pushed the role to its limits, but not beyond.

Meanwhile the parents continue with their preparations apparently blissfully unaware of the internecine frictions fuelling the family festivities. Emma makes her usual teacakes while Edward potters in his shed protecting his dahlias.  Jenny Hobson’s Emma was a picture of the maternal matter-of-factness, while John Bellamy’s Edward was the epitome of paternal petulance.

However, everyone is figuratively biting their nails and as they prepare to go out to their celebratory dinner, frayed nerves begin to unravel. Mum’s cakes, unpalatable to all except their creator, are passed on as a metaphor for the series of mutual rejections within the family.  Then we come to the point of play, expressed with Edward’s finest crabbiness, “We all marry the wrong person.”

So rather neatly, we move from the Ifs to the What-ifs. Ayckbourn’s theatrical conceit is to swap around the partners in each of the succeeding scenes, so that each sister has another of the three men, putting the same characters in different circumstances. The writing does stretch the idea to breaking point, but allows for some incongruous farce.  This comes to a head in the penultimate scene when the family return, somewhat the worse for wear, from the dinner.  (With her inebriated Deirdre, Julie Davis does drunk well,).  The final scene takes the idea into the realm of surrealism, by permutating all the possibilities of sororal pairings.

Nevertheless, this whirl of confusions does give a great opportunity to showcase acting skills, and in this the cast excelled, putting a different nuance on the personality of each character when paired with a different partner. The best opportunity for this is for Ashton Cull’s James, since as Jaz he is the only one of three men not to be married to a sister.  Brendan Leddy modulated his depiction of David with each sister, and Daniel Wain’s Oliver changed in each incarnation with studied subtlety.   Daniel Wain must be particularly congratulated, as he took up the role only at the last rehearsal, due to the previous actor suddenly being taken seriously ill.  At the opening night, when your reviewer saw the play, his knowledge of the part was remarkable.

The design was brought to life by Malcolm Maclenan’s lighting and John Pyle’s sound (with Bizet’s Jeux des Enfants commenting on the premise of the drama) texturing an otherwise lacklustre set, which comprised a large settee and armchair.  These greatly constrained the action and were an impediment to the fluidity of movement so essential for the farcical elements of the play.

John Roth, a tried and tested Ayckbourn director, has clearly enjoyed both the philosophy and the fun underpinning the play. Ayckbourn, by his own admission, described Family Circles as “ …probably not vintage, but it’s got a few good laughs in it, the premise of the play being that, depending upon whom you marry, you become slightly different.” John Roth has picked up this idea and run with it, to get the best out of his actors.  In his director’s programme notes, he invited us to decide “who best goes with whom or if nothing fits!”

The answer, I think, is hidden in the sub-plot. Oh, did I not mention the sub-plot?  Well the sisters all believe, and bring the men around to believing, that their parents are trying to murder each other. But is Mum trying to murder Dad or Dad to murder Mum?  Perhaps the truth is that they can’t see that Mum and Dad have rubbed along together for four decades, only by allowing the grit in the oyster to form a pearl.

So, do we make a marriage or does the marriage make us? It’s a big If.


October 2015


From → Reviews

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