Private Fears In Public Places

Alan Ayckbourn
Library Theatre, Manchester
(2006)

Production photo

This recent play by master craftsman Alan Ayckbourn may sound from its title like another play about the so-called 'War On Terror[ism]', but actually deals with rather more personal affairs of the heart.

The play concerns a group of rather pathetic, lonely characters who are all failing to get anywhere with relationships for different reasons. Nicola is looking for a nice, upmarket flat for herself and her fiancé Dan, but she is frustrated that Dan spends most of his time in a hotel bar chatting to the barman, Ambrose, when he should be looking for a job. Her estate agent Stewart quite fancies Charlotte at work but she talks rather too much about her religion. Stewart lives with his sister Imogen, who sits in a bar night after night waiting for her dating agency partners to not turn up. Charlotte looks after Ambrose's difficult father in the evening while Ambrose is at work, and Ambrose occasionally hints at a deep sadness in his past to do with a partner. Then Charlotte reveals a rather different side to herself that no one was expecting.

Judith Croft has designed an impressive set that works perfectly for a play that switches location frequently, and sometimes even shows more than one location at once. There is sometimes a nice crossover of scenes with action in multiple locations at once, a bit like watching Sex In the City in the style of 24 - with perhaps just a dash of Seinfeld - on stage.

The performances are all excellent: Malcolm James gives a very moving performance as Ambrose, Leigh Symonds is pathetic enough to bring out the humour without stretching the character of Stewart to a caricature and it is difficult not to feel sorry for him at the end, and Alice James gives a great comic performance which is also quite moving in parts as Imogen. There are also excellent performances from Imogen Slaughter as Nicola, Robert Perkins as Dan and Olwen May as Charlotte.

The play is quite disjointed with several different story threads that hardly meet and no neat ending to tie them all together and it depends on some pretty big coincidences to tie the lives of these six different people so closely together, but Ayckbourn somehow makes it work and makes you forget the unlikeliness of it all. It is very funny in parts, but Ayckbourn has also created wonderfully drawn characters who throw out very subtle hints about their lives outside the story so that you feel you know much more about them than they actually tell us. These subtleties are played just right by the actors, and Chris Honer's direction keeps everything moving along at a perfect pace.

Ayckbourn's name, as always, has already sold a lot of advance tickets for this production, but this play seems a long way from his earlier suburban middle-class drawing room comedies so beloved of amateur societies and quite modern, which may explain why at times the real belly laughs were restricted to small pockets of this packed auditorium on the press night. However this is an excellent production of a funny and observant play about middle-class neuroses in the big city.

Reviewer: David Chadderton