Alan Ayckbourn
Stephen Joseph Theatre in association with Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

Stephen Billington
Elizabeth Boag and Emma Manton

Having to learn a new play every week used to be a good training ground for actors when most regional theatres were producing their own plays. Alan Ayckbourn uses the same repertory system but condenses it into one evening with the revival of his 1974 play Confusions which was originally written to show off the talents of the five actors who comprised his company at the time.

Virtually five different plays, in lesser hands this might have been a disaster, but with Ayckbourn himself directing, the five performers here brilliantly manage 20 different roles between them, switching seamlessly from one to another with a succession of wigs, costumes and facial expressions to match.

The harassed mother in the first is so locked in her child-orientated world that she treats her worried neighbours like naughty children, ignoring the 'phone which rings incessantly. She reduces next door’s domineering husband to the status of a small boy drinking his hated milk while his wife is just beginning to realise that the role of "stay at home" wife is not always to her liking. Times were changing!

There are tenuous links between the plays, and in the second we assume the travelling salesman trying to call his wife is the errant husband, but he is less concerned about her whereabouts than about fruitlessly attempting to seduce two attractive young perfume sales reps (Emma Manton and Elizabeth Boag from the first play). Here Richard Stacey gives a brilliantly annoying performance of a man desperately trying to appear sober while irritatingly and excruciatingly trying to persuade someone (anyone) to make use of his room key.

Stephen Billington, the overbearing husband from play one, is the waiter bringing drinks with a flourish and with little in the way of dialogue, but completely stealing the scene with expressions, mannerisms and walk—a very understated performance and very funny. He continues the theme in a restaurant where two couples are dining and as a waiter moves attentively between the two tables catching some very pertinent snatches of the conversation.

At a disastrous village fete, Russell Dixon’s pompous and philandering diner Mr Pearce becomes the unrefined fete organiser but with the same tendencies and Mrs Pearce (Boag) is the Lady Counsellor due to make the opening speech, while the vicar (Stacey) tries his ineffectual best to give assistance with dramatically hilarious results. Pure slapstick farce.

As well as the complications caused by so many changes of characters, the different venues demand multiple scene changes. The basic set remains the same, but furnishings have to be changed each time and these changes have a rhythm and choreography all their own, strangely entertaining to watch.

The final play is a simply four benches, each occupied by a single person, and as all five cast members take part someone has to move up. It is comic, yet also sad, to see each character boring the next one by pouring out their troubles which no one wants to hear. Hero’s Welcome, the companion play written 40 years later and Ayckbourn’s 79th, can be enjoyed on a different evening during the run before they both take off on tour.

I am very much looking forward to comparing the two.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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