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Ten Times Table

by on 21 January 2020

History Repeats

Ten Times Table

by Alan Ayckbourn

Classic Comedy Theatre Company at Richmond Theatre until 25th January, then on tour until 28th March

Review by Claire Alexander

Anyone who has ever sat on a committee or attended a meeting will recognise the challenges and little annoyances posed in Alan Ayckbourn’s Ten Times Table – the challenge of finding a convenient date for everyone for the next meeting, the freezing hotel meeting room with its unpredictable electricity supply, the list of apologies, the budding romances and the broken marriage spilling into the meeting’s purpose. Coupled with Ayckbourn’s unparalleled ability to turn unassuming domestic humdrum into witty entertainment, Ten Times Table is a clever script, not as often produced as many of his other works.

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A small ill matched group of people are meeting to try and plan an inaugural pageant to bring their small town of Pendon together and provide a focus for the summer. Led by Ray, local history enthusiast, they take inspiration from an obscure story of the ‘Pendon 12’ a local uprising of farmers 200 years ago, whose only crime seems to be exuberant behaviour and throwing people into the air! Our committee is made up of ever patient TenTimes5Ray and his expensively dressed snobbish wife Helen, pedantic local councillor Donald and his deaf elderly mother whom he has invited along to take the minutes, permanently drunk Laurence who is drowning his sorrows for the troubles in his marriage and two local teachers Eric and Sophie. Not a particularly inspiring idea for a play you may think, with all but its final scene set around a committee room table. But it is in good hands with Ayckbourn with his wickedly sharp observation of characters and situations. Conflict is inevitable from the first moment Eric and Helen meet when it becomes evident that they are from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Left wing Eric quickly interprets the ‘uprising’ as the local people suppressed by the elite of the community, and sees the opportunity to turn an innocent light hearted town pageant into a political rally and a golden chance to recruit people to his political cause, turning the leaders of the Pendon 12 into latter day political heroes.

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Perhaps reminiscent of the politics of the late 1970s, when this play was written, Eric quickly musters his resources of like-minded thinkers, turns the ‘pageant’ into a ‘rally’ and keenly takes the chance to play the leader’s role himself, producing tee-shirts and a song to market his cause. The rest of the committee members get caught unawares and struggle to keep up with their side of the organisation – the ‘military’ who are sent to quell the uprising. The final scene is set for a clever and farcical denouement of ‘art imitates life’ as the day of the pageant arrives and Helen and her pitifully few supporters face Eric and his apparently well organised locals!

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The play is set entirely in the drab hotel room where committee meetings take place over the course of the eight months it takes to organise. As such, this could be a very static production, but in the able hands of director, Robin Herford, the action moves along swiftly never losing our interest.

In the role as chairman of the committee, Ray, Robert Daws keeps his committee in order with pleasant long suffering! I personally didn’t like the occasional vocal affectations to make a point, but his performance was pacy and assured. Similarly Deborah Grant, as Helen, portrayed her exasperation with Eric and his ideas with a controlled and believable performance never losing the naturalism. As Marxist Eric, Craig Gazey was a concentrated presence on stage and you could see the cogs ticking over in Eric’s psyche as his initial condescending boredom turned slowly into strategy and opportunity. His was an entirely recognisable portrayal of late 20th Century left-wing activism and could be equally relevant today too! I loved Elizabeth Power’s watchable performance as the elderly mother Audrey, bought in to take the minutes, not hearing much of the action but with wonderfully natural interjections and never overplaying the comedy. Mark Curry as TenTimes6detail-obsessed councillor Donald who is more concerned with dotting the ‘i’s and crossing the ‘t’s in the minutes, is entirely recognisable as typical of such characters in committees the country over. And Robert Duncan gave a magnificently sustained performance as drunk Laurence never falling into the trap of caricature. Add to this Gemma Oaten as Sophie, subtly seeking romance with Eric, Harry Gostelow as her military, dog obsessed, over controlling husband Tim, and Rhiannon Handy as Eric’s diminutive wife Philippa (both the latter bought in to help in the organisation) and this production was entirely enjoyable and never overplayed the comedy.

There were a couple of set pieces it didn’t need, such as Helen’s realisation that Tim could come to her rescue in her part of the organisation, at the end of Act One. I would also like to have heard a little of Philippa’s frightened utterances – I know she was meant never to be heard but it was frustrating that we couldn’t actually hear!!

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But the farce of the final scene as this motley group try to organise their pageant-rally was played with care and didn’t descend into pantomime which would have destroyed the ending! The constant soundscape of Audrey’s piano playing of typical English folk tunes just added to the absurd atmosphere. I think this was played live. If it was a recording it was incredibly well executed. And there were also many details that I loved, especially in set and costuming, that brought this production alive.

Ayckbourn’s text is so cleverly observed that it can tell itself. But this experienced group of actors, many well known for their TV roles, gave us an entertaining and believable evening without falling into the trap of stereotype and caricature.

Claire Alexander
January 2020

Photography by Pamela Raith

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