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Three Ayckbourn Plays

by on 7 March 2019

Triple Jump to the Fringe

Three Ayckbourn Plays

by Alan Ayckbourn

Barnes Community Players’ Triple Bill at OSO Arts Centre, Barnes until 10th March, then on Fringe tour until August.

A review by Vince Francis

Barnes Community Players trilogy of Alan Ayckbourn one-act plays are presented at the Old Sorting Office, this week, are in preparation for the Edinburgh festival. The selected plays are Mother Figure, A Cut in the Rates and No Knowing, with the first two being performed before the single interval. I was not familiar with any of these (I’m mainly a music and musicals bloke), so I was looking forward to having my horizons expanded.

Mother Figure features Amanda Larson as Lucy Compton, Bryony Wilman as Rosemary Oates, Rodger Hayward-Smith as Terry Oates and not forgetting Curly Bear as Mr. Poddle. Lucy is the mother of three children who are under school age and the wife of Harry, a travelling businessman whom we do not see in this production. As a result, Lucy has become wholly preoccupied with acting as single parent to the children, to the extent that she has given up answering the door or the phone and barely bothers to change out of nightclothes. Her husband, worried by the lack of response to calls, has contacted the neighbours to check she’s OK and this leads to Rosemary visiting, followed later by her oafish husband Terry.

Ayck Official Pic2The comedy lies in the wry observation of how the behaviour of adults reflects that of children and can be managed by good parenting. This worked well, generally, although I wondered if Lucy might be a little more preoccupied, or distracted, than angry, which the predominant response was. That may well be a matter of taste and fancy, though. Amanda’s portrayal was consistent and believable throughout. Bryony’s performance was similarly classy and the two worked well together. Sadly, I would have to say that I found Rodger’s Terry Oates less believable. I’m not sure whether it was a lack of direction, or lack of comfort in knowledge of the script, or character, or blocking, but Terry seemed to thrash around for responses on occasion and this hesitation detracted from the portrayal of a straightforward oaf, i.e. someone who doesn’t think of anyone else simply because nobody else matters. That said, this was a good piece and there were plenty of well-earned laughs.

A mention for the stage management at this point. Mother Figure employs a fair number of furnishings and props to give the impression of the chaos that is a room that has been occupied by under-fives, together with the laundry overhead that is attached. It works really well, but it is a busy set and it had to be cleared and reset for the second production. This was done efficiently and without fuss by a combination of cast and crew, but it is a bit of a big change. Given that time is a limiting factor in Edinburgh venues, I wondered whether any simplification is possible to shave off a few seconds.

The second piece, A Cut in the Rates, is another three-hander, featuring Alexa Bushel as Monica Pickhart, Nicola Doble as The Woman Upstairs and Patrick Van den Bergh as T L Ratchet. It’s difficult to summarise this one without giving the game away, but let’s just say that Miss Pickhart, a Town Hall employee, visits Mr. Ratchet, a retired illusionist, to investigate unpaid bills. During the course of the visit, she is left alone in the cellar, where the ghost of Ratchet’s stage assistant (Nicola Doble) appears. We learn that she died as a result of an accident on stage during a sawing the woman in half routine.

This was the best of the bunch for me. It was clear that all three were absolutely at ease and felt able bring the piece to life, if that’s an appropriate way to put it. Alexa Bushel’s Monica was suitably jumpy. Nicola Doble’s double-billing brings us a couple of very effective visual gags (no, I’m not going to tell you; go and see it) and some very affecting sinuous movement, whilst Patrick van den Bergh’s Ratchet is wonderfully expansive and enigmatic. Good stuff.

The final piece, No Knowing, has Trevor Hartnup as Arthur, and Marie Bushell, as Arthur’s wife, Elspeth. Steve Bannell played their son, Nigel, and Fiona Lawrie their daughter Alison.

Arthur and Elspeth have been married for forty years and it’s clear that they have drifted. He regularly disappears off to his shed, to surf the Internet, whilst she, equally regularly, meets up with her friend Janice. The seeds of suspicion are thus sown among the audience. Is he going to turn out to be some sort of pervert? Is Janice simply a cover for an extra marital affair? The answer to the first question is no, thankfully, but he is up to no good. The answer to the second question is yes, sort of, but not quite as you think.

The tension is built up as Nigel informs Arthur of local gossip regarding his mum and, later, Alison informs Elspeth of incidents that reveal Arthur’s on-line antics.

In the end, there is reconciliation and a nice observation about how we pledge ourselves to someone we hardly know. It’s a comforting resolution, but I was expecting more fireworks. Perhaps I’m just a pessimist.

A very special acknowledgement is due to Marie Bushell who read in the part of Elspeth.  We were informed that she had only eight days’ notice of this and I have to say, that within minutes, it was easy forget that she had the script in front of her. A brave rescue of a tricky situation that happened to reveal a very credible and creditable performance.

This was the longest and most complex of the three pieces and, as such, most of the little niggles and nudges below apply here. These are general points. I feel it would be unfair to criticise individual performances in this piece given the potential effect that the change in personnel may have had. Let’s get those out of the way here.

Not everyone is safe on his or her lines. There was a fair amount of spluttering, a number of repeated cues or dialogue exchanges and a couple of pauses that were other than dramatic.

Movement. I was fortunate enough to see Art at Richmond Theatre on the previous evening, a production that provides a fine example of how to employ movement and stillness effectively. By contrast, there was a point in No Knowing where the shuffling of feet was reminiscent of a sand dance worthy of Wilson, Keppel and Betty.

Ad-libbing: very risky, in my humble opinion. It can act as a distraction for the performers and audience and, at worst, can quickly deteriorate into a competition of wit, or an orgy of in jokes and references.

Hit your marks. There are no follow spots and being half lit is one of the unfortunate and avoidable archetypes of amateur theatre.

Be quiet in the wings. The OSO is wholly unforgiving in this aspect, which is unsurprising, since it wasn’t designed as a performance space. Any mutterings are clearly audible in the, er, auditorium and there were plenty.

Opening nights are always fraught. It’s not unheard of for professional productions to implement last minute fixes and changes and these can be apparent, even when the cast and crew are engaged full-time on the show, so an allowance should be made for those of us in amateur world, where we may also be working full-time. In this case, as mentioned, a key cast member had dropped out at a late stage. There’s also the element of nerves building up with the first audience arriving in their seats.

Taken in that context, this was a pleasant evening with a few minor crits, which, it is hoped, will be accepted in the spirit they are offered. As a first outing for an Edinburgh project, it shows promise, but it does need a bit of sharpening up. A good script – and these are good scripts – can get you through a lot of difficulties, but do, please, beware. The home crowd will always, rightfully, be supportive and, in some instances, make allowances. An away crowd, particularly a discerning Edinburgh festival audience, may vote with their feet and that would be a genuine crying shame for this project, which, as I say, I believe has great potential.

Vince Francis
March 2019

Photography by Andrew Higgins

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