House and Garden

Alan Ayckbourn
Salisbury Playhouse

Schoolteachers might argue they have been doing this for years — running between stages, delivering lines to different audiences gathered simultaneously in separate theatres. All in the hope of finishing together at 4pm.

If that doesn’t give you the picture, try the politician determined to be in two places at once, hoping he is uttering the right speech in the right place!

Either scenario should help you into the remarkable world that is Alan Ayckbourn’s House & Garden: two plays, on the face of it, but really one play performed in two places — simultaneously. As currently being lived out in Tim Luscombe’s well-worked production for Salisbury Playhouse, House & Garden brings us soberingly face to face with the human readiness to rely on half the picture.

Thus while a couple of hours on the English summer lawn that is the Salberg Studio raises one set of impressions about the Platts, the Maces and other guests at this frenetic garden party, a visit inside their country home on the main stage suggests quite another.

Much may depend upon which order you choose to see the plays. Indoors, affairs are relatively sombre. Joanna van Gyseghem’s intimidating Trish Platt has decided her amiable husband Teddy (John Branwell) has become invisible. The device doesn’t work either for her or us since he is plainly ubiquitous, especially when there are other women around.

In comes their vivacious daughter Sally (Jenni Maitland) — though, for me, the substance of her role is obscured by the point of her being in school uniform in the middle of August. While on the subject of attire, the choice of Debenham’s mode for young Jake (Tom Lawrence) seems improbable attire for a doctor’s son and while Bill Champion is earnest enough to be a GP, he is not one whose panel I would care to join

Perhaps this sartorial uncertainty is meant to confuse us as to which political party Teddy is about to stand for! Neither does John Warnaby’s urbane novelist Gavin Ring-Mayne help at all in this respect as any distinction between Conservative and New Labour, if there ever was any, vanished long ago.

But now we must adjourn to the garden — for it is only out here that the remaining characters mean anything at all. It is here, too, that the play reaches a higher, or lower, plane according to your proclivities.

Pippa Haywood’s Joanna spends far too much time in the shrubbery to be a real doctor’s wife while Izzie and Pearl Truce (Lavinia Bertram and Sophie Duval) spend their time totally confusing me as to which of them is which! Teddy, meanwhile, is spending his time in the fortune tent destroying any lingering credibility as husband or prospective party candidate.

Add to this mixture Richard Kane, a consummate Ayckbourn player whose gardner is a delight, as the working man’s Robin Cooke, and Félicité du Jeu whose pulchritudinal Parisian Lucille, reveals no acquaintance with any language but her own, and you have the real measure of Ayckbourn’s mischief making.

As a theatrical experience, House & Garden is an event to remember. As entertainment, it doesn’t work nearly as well as The Norman Conquests — raising doubts about the point of so much theatrical slog.

The production runs until Saturday 20 March.

Reviewer: Kevin Catchpole

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