Private Fears in Public Places

Alan Ayckbourn
Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
(2005)

Watching a play by Sir Alan Ayckbourn could be regarded as analogous to shopping in Marks and Spencer's. The product is always of an acceptable standard, it greatly pleases the average citizen and it is rarely unpredictable.

This explains the Ayckbourn phenomenon that, through close to 70 plays, has made him the country's most performed living playwright. Even Shakespeare might struggle to compete with his prolixity.

Private Fears in Public Places would make a pretty fair title for the whole canon and is a very strong example of the writer's work. It features half-a-dozen typically insecure, unhappy Ayckbourn people on stage and as a bonus, a very grouchy one just out of sight.

The central characters are that unbelievable rarity, a shy estate agent, Paul Kemp's Stewart, and his Scottish, Fundamentalist Christian colleague Charlotte, played by Alexandra Mathie. The action revolves around this unlikely pair, their lives and customers.

Dan and Nicola seem like the perfect couple as they search for a three-bedroom flat. Paul Thornley plays the handsome ex-army officer with a beautiful Sloane Ranger partner (Melanie Gutteridge) and seemingly the world at his feet. However, after a fight with his father and a discharge from the army under a cloud, he finds himself unemployed and fatally attracted to drink.

Stewart lives with his equally shy sister Imogen (Sarah Moyle) quietly but happily. However, she spends her evenings not with "The Girls" as she claims, but wearing large red carnations awaiting blind dates that never turn up.

Charlotte is a strange woman, since all of her emotions are kept beneath the surface. Her character is summed up by the video tapes she lends to Stewart. The first half-hour contains last Sunday's equivalent to Songs of Praise but once this ends, it gives way to movies of her passionate but very secret sex life.

When she's not working in the estate agent's, inexplicably Charlotte moonlights as a carer looking after an irascible but rather dirty old man, who entertains us wonderfully though he is never seen. The play comes around full circle since the old man's son Ambrose, played by Adrian McLoughlin, is the barman who entertains Dan on a nightly basis. Ambrose has his own secret, a male lover who almost certainly died of Aids.

Under the direction of the playwright, all six performers are outstanding. The way in which they demonstrate the insecurities and embarrassments that are so prevalent at all levels in British society is constantly impressive.

Sir Alan weaves his magical and often comical spell to great effect for just under two hours. This small group of people interact in many surprising ways before reaching a conclusion of mutual depression.

This is not demanding theatre but it is entertaining and this London Premiere will delight the residents of Richmond as it undoubtedly did those of Scarborough. How something so English goes down at 59E59 Off-Broadway in New York will prove to be fascinating.

Gill Stoker reviewed the world premiere at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

Philip Fisher