Guns and Ghosts

Life & Beth by Alan Ayckbourn
Smoking Gun: Cover Her Feet/Fly in the Ointment by Nick Warburton
Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

Life and Beth publicity image

Life & Beth is the latest Ayckbourn play (his 71st), performed as part of a Things That Go Bump season of three plays with a supernatural element. The other two plays are revivals: Snake in the Grass (2002) and Haunting Julia (1994). As Ayckbourn says in his introduction to the summer season booklet, he is fascinated by the Number Three -- here we have three plays, two of which contain three characters (three women in one, three men in the other), while Life & Beth brings all six actors together.

By contrast, Nick Warburton seems to be exploring the Number Two in his double bill, which consists of two short plays performed by two actors, playing the same characters in each. I had the rare opportunity of seeing the plays as a double bill, in the McCarthy Theatre -- most of the performances have been given as single plays on separate days, at lunchtimes in the SJT restaurant.

Life & Beth concerns a recently widowed, middle-aged woman, Beth (Liza Goddard), spending her first Christmas without her husband. To keep her company are various characters with problems of their own: her alcoholic sister-in-law Connie (a gift of a role for the versatile Susie Blake, who indulges in an overly short skirt, tarty makeup, a wobbly drunken walk and what must surely be padding to make her bottom stick out provocatively); son Martin (Richard Stacey), who bounces around like an over-excited puppy; Martin's put-upon, resentful, weepy and totally silent girlfriend Ella (Ruth Gibson); a romantically-inclined vicar, David (Ian Hogg), suffering from what psychologists would probably call boundary problems; and finally, the most unexpected and unwanted guest of all, the ghost of Beth's husband Gordon (Adrian McLoughlin).

The play is fun, in a dark kind of way, but I couldn't help thinking that the vicar needed to be more of a trendy liberal, teaming his dog collar with some brightly coloured modern clothes (think daytime TV presenter), rather than a traditional high churchman in a dull black cassock and drab duffle coat. I also wondered about the conversation in which Beth tells David how Gordon died: surely, as David officiated at the funeral service, he would have needed this kind of information for his funeral address, so this conversation would have taken place some weeks earlier?

The Smoking Gun double bill, with its farcical situations and social comedy, has a certain Ayckbournish feel about it, and I wasn't surprised to read that Ayckbourn himself suggested the gunshot opening to Warburton. There's also a strong element of Ayckbourn in the way that these two short plays interrelate -- a little like The Norman Conquests trilogy, with each play covering the same period of time from different characters' perspectives.

But that is where the similarity ends, for the two Warburton plays defy any attempt to neatly dovetail them together, as they offer quite different, and mutually exclusive, possibilities, as if they are taking place in parallel universes: while Cover Her Feet begins with Bobby (John O'Mahony) accidentally shooting his wife, and ends with Lexi (Charity Reindorp) accidentally shooting her boss, Fly in the Ointment begins with Lexi accidentally shooting her boss, and ends with Bobby accidentally shooting his wife (I hope you're following me). And while in the first play Bobby and Lexi have already met, and are 'working together' as man and life coach, at the beginning of the second play they meet for the first time. As single plays performed in individual lunchtime slots, this would be less confusing, but as a double bill on one evening it takes a bit of getting one's head round. However, I don't mean that as a criticism -- perhaps it's a wry post-modernist (or would that be post-structuralist?) comment on the audience's naive and outdated need for a chronological narrative line!

The strength of these short plays by Warburton lies in the witty and rapid dialogue and in the unremitting tension of the situation. The underlying element is farce: after the accidental shooting at the beginning, the rest of each play consists of the two characters trying to work out what to do next, either cover up the crime with far-fetched alibis, or simply come clean and tell the truth.

2008 marks Sir Alan Ayckbourn's final season before he retires as Artistic Director of the SJT, a theatre which he has built up over the past fifty years, starting in a room above Scarborough's public library, then moving to an old school building, and from there to the present, magnificent Art Deco cinema building. During that time, thanks to his charismatic guidance and leadership, the SJT has been a powerhouse of creative theatrical talent. It will be interesting to see, in due course, who can possibly 'follow that act'.

Reviewer: Gill Stoker

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