Stephen Joseph Theatre Company
The McCarthy, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
The latest new play written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn is a slender affair, a miniature with a vaguely Christmassy setting. It’s very much an alternative to the glossy, celeb-burdened (and often overlong) pantos which traditionally constitute the majority of theatrical fodder at this time of the year.
The story takes shape around a familiarly Ayckbourn-ish scenario: at a 40th wedding anniversary, Arthur (Russell Dixon) and Elspeth (Jacqueline King) have gathered friends and family together in celebration. As the pointedly modern and poppy music fades out, Elspeth stands up to propose a toast to her husband: to his love and understanding, and especially to the importance, in a long-running marriage, of knowing when to confront dissatisfactions head-on and when to wait quietly for potential conflict to ebb past and dissipate.
In a simple and neat piece of staging: the four actors line up for the opening scene in front of a lightly stylised kitchen decked out with celebratory lanterns, with Elspeth’s speech delivered directly to the still-lit auditorium.
Following the raising of the toast, we segue into a two-hander between the couple, alone at the end of a meal together. The elliptical communications and lengthy pauses—the sense of menace, almost, behind the various clearly pent-up frustrations—make it impossible not to contemplate the kinship between Ayckbourn and Pinter. As Elspeth heads out, their son Nigel (Bill Champion) calls round with an urgent need for a private chat, and revelations start to emerge.
And then—the interval arrives. At barely eighty minutes’ running time (including this break), this is a compact piece—in some ways little more than an extended sketch of the kind Ayckbourn has often turned his hand, as in Confusions or Roundelay.
Given that the piece is described as "a comedy of two halves"—"knowing her" and "knowing him"—it’s also unsurprising when its structure plays games with symmetry and the iteration of options. On returning to the story, we hear Arthur’s toast, then witness a re-run (with variations) of the tense, silence-studded supper.
This time, daughter Alison (Laura Matthews) gets the chance to be alone with her mother, and offers parallel—though quite different—revelations.
Jacqueline King as Elspeth is the most versatile performer on show, and of the two leads she’s the one who deals with the ambiguities and inscrutabilities of the text (and character) more convincingly. Russell Dixon as husband Arthur has an instinct for the one-liner, but his playing of the role erodes some of the pleasing unknowability of the situation in favour of the shorter-term gains of the comic payoff.
To say too much more about the progression of the plot would undermine the play’s carefully poised information flow, a skilfully balanced unveiling of which Ayckbourn again demonstrates mastery.
There are witty lines—some new and some rather hackneyed—and Ayckbourn is clearly continuing his stealth feminism here with biting remarks such as Elspeth’s deliciously innocent opening, along the lines, "I’d like to say a few words about marriage from a woman’s point of view, if that’s alright".
Rarely do any of his characters come out of their tangled webs well, but here it seems hope for equilibrium in long-lasting marriage may be found in spite of—not in collaboration with—the husband. It leaves us with a slight Christmas diversion, containing some wisdom, and some oddities.
Reviewer: Mark Smith