Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Life and Beth

Alan Ayckbourn
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, and touring
(2009)

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Even in these days of girl-power, feminism and high powered career women there are still men who believe that women are incapable of managing life on their own, and they must be cosseted, looked after – and managed! Gordon was such a man – a pompous, overbearing Health and Safety Inspector – say no more! The house is full of health and safety measures which are more of a hindrance than a help.

Gordon is now deceased (he fell off a ladder) and this is wife Beth's first Christmas without him. We meet Beth on Christmas Eve in Pip Leckenby's two-level set of a large, tidy living-dining room with little evidence of Christmas. Beth sits staring fixedly at a television, trying to listen to carols, while her sister-in-law, Connie, prattles on, eulogising her adored brother and how much she will miss him.

So far it has the makings of a typical domestic sit-com but, as with all of Ayckbourn's plays, there is a subversive element lurking beneath the surface ready to spring a surprise and reveal the darker elements within the human psyche. As Connie talks, and helps herself to yet another glass of red wine, her inner feelings of resentment come to the fore. She was constantly overlooked by her father (it seems the son was a mirror image) in favour of the clever brother who was going to make his mark in the world, and everything was spent on his education leaving her feeing rejected and worthless.

Directed by Ayckbourn himself, surprisingly most of the characters seem overstated and one-dimensional, almost caricatures, one exception being Liza Goddard who has discarded her glamorous, elegant self to become sensible, hard-working, late middle-aged Beth, in an unbecoming wig and sloppy cardigan, and she keeps her Yorkshire accent throughout.

Terence Booth, too, is excellent as the well-meaning vicar, David, cheering her up with a little song - “Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative” - although it seems she already is in a very positive mood: “My life is my own again – free as a bird”. The play (Ayckbourn's seventy first) concentrates and sympathises with the plight of women being controlled (suffocated even) by overbearing men, but the vicar too has his problems. Just with the tone and inflection of his voice when he speaks of his mother - “She's eighty-eight you know, and still going strong” - it is obvious that she is the one in control.

Son Martin (Richard Stacey) arrives with his silent, cowed girl friend Ella (Ruth Gibson) and frighteningly it appears that here is another mirror image of a father. Determined to look after his mother, he ignores her protests and creates the Christmas he is sure she must want while Ella, in charge of the cooking, breaks so many dishes in the off-stage kitchen that there can't be a thing left to cook with.

It is no surprise when the ghost of Gordon appears at the end of act one – his name is in the credits – and he is just as overbearing in spirit form, determined to look after a wife who cannot be capable of leading her own life. Can Beth manage to get rid of him?

In spite of the theme of bereavement, this is an entertaining gentle comedy emphasising that life moves on – maybe in a different direction, but just as enjoyable or, in some cases, perhaps more so.

Touring to Cambridge, Malvern, Worthing, Bath and Oxford

Reviewer: Sheila Connor