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Better Off Dead

Alan Ayckbourn
Stephen Joseph Theatre Company
Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

Leigh Symonds (Gus) and Christopher Godwin (Algy) Credit: Tony Bartholomew
Liz Jadav (Thelma) and Christopher Godwin (Algy) Credit: Tony Bartholomew
Eileen Battye (Jessica) and Christopher Godwin (Algy) Credit: Tony Bartholomew

For his latest play, Ayckbourn has chosen to explore the world of writers and writing. With 82 plays in the bag, this is certainly a subject on which he can call himself an expert.

Ayckbourn is rightfully lauded for the structural ingenuity of his plays, and Better Off Dead—which takes place in two different worlds—has a characteristically imaginative premise.

In the real world, irascible author Algy Waterbridge (Christopher Godwin) ploughs through his 33rd crime novel. In the world of the book—which appears whenever Algy starts typing away at his keyboard—his cantankerous hero DCI Tommy Middlebrass (Russell Dixon) is in hot pursuit of a serial killer, aided by his plucky assistant DS Gemma Price (Naomi Petersen).

Back in the real world, Algy must contend with various irritations, including an intrusive PA (Liz Jadev), a spouse (Eileen Battye) who no longer remembers him, a dim-witted journalist (Leigh Symonds) who kills him off with a premature obituary and a wideboy publisher (Laurence Pears) who hasn’t read any of his books.

So what does Ayckbourn’s play reveal about the writing process? Not a lot, unfortunately. One can sense Ayckbourn’s sympathy for a writer whose work is no longer in vogue—something that he will never have to worry about, given his huge popularity—but otherwise we gain little insight into the daily struggles that beset most writers.

Furthermore, the dubious quality of Algy’s writing is never really called into question by any of the characters. At times, we sense that Ayckbourn wishes to parody the crime genre, particularly the subgenre of the mismatched police duo, but this is done with little real bite.

Better Off Dead also suffers from a lack of conflict. None of the other characters is a match for Algy who, despite being pompous and abrasive, at least has a mind of his own. I found myself longing for his estranged daughter to fly over from Canada and cut him down to size.

My main gripe with the play is that it doesn’t take its central premise far enough. Better Off Dead has been advertised as a play in which reality and fantasy collide, but for most of the play the two worlds remain completely separate. This seems a shame because the idea of Algy’s fictional world invading his real life presents myriad storytelling possibilities. In the second half, Middlebrass confronts his creator face to face, but this feels like too little too late.

Better Off Dead suffers from comparison with Joking Apart, which also runs at the Stephen Joseph Theatre until 4 October and features several of the same actors. I enjoyed the performances of Liz Jadav, Laurence Pears and Leigh Symonds in Joking Apart, but here they are given very little to do. Naomi Petersen does what she can with an underwritten part, and Eileen Battye impresses in the play’s touching final scene.

Russell Dixon gives a spirited performance as Algy’s blunt-talking Yorkshire copper, bringing to mind Warren’s Clarke’s rendition of Andy Dalziel in the BBC series Dalziel and Pascoe. Try as he might, however, even Dixon can’t inject life into the play’s tedious crime narrative.

The saving grace of the play is Christopher Godwin, a seasoned Ayckbourn performer, who skilfully captures Algy’s misanthropy and creative frustration. His energised performance provides most of the evening’s laughs.

Better Off Dead is probably the weakest Ayckbourn play I’ve seen thus far. That being said, there are still moments where his trademark wit shines through and, based on the audience response, I’m sure that his die-hard fans will still find much to enjoy.

Reviewer: James Ballands