Ten Times Table

Alan Ayckbourn
The Classic Comedy Theatre Company
Sheffield Lyceum

Robert Daws Credit: Pamela Raith
The Cast of 10 Times Table Credit: Pamela Raith
The Cast of 10 Times Table Credit: Pamela Raith

Ayckbourn was an established playwright when he wrote Ten TimesTable in 1977. He describes the play as ‘a study of the committee person’ or 'a predominantly sedentary farce’.

He had spent the autumn of the previous year attending endless committee meetings in an effort to obtain funding and support for a move to a new theatre space. This frustrating experience provided the impetus for the new play and an insight into the ‘procedures and protocols’ of committee work and the kind of people engaged in it.

Ayckbourn had moved away from the customary domestic settings of his previous plays and was attempting something which explored polarisation of attitudes and political extremes in a more public social context.

In the play an inexperienced Chairman draws together a motley group of committee members to organise and fund raise for a re-enactment of a slice of local history in which a street protest by workers is brutally suppressed by the local militia supported by the aristocracy. Shades of Peterloo!

The committee members include an aggressive proto-type Margaret Thatcher and a glowering Marxist, a bureaucrat who revels in committee work with his ageing mother who takes the minutes, a maudlin drunk, two youngish girls one of whom can hardly squeak a word and later in the play an out of control militarist.

Although initially well received, the play has largely faded from view in later decades. The current revival points to the stylistic and other considerations that make this play less appealing than others in Ayckbourn’s extensive repertoire.

Stylistically it hovers between a comedy and a farce. In this production some members of the cast engage in earnest, in-depth characterisation with a suggestion of comedy while others go for out and out farce with its unrealism and manic energy.

The committee table dominates the set for the whole of the first half. This is convincingly realistic but does make for a static and rater dull production. The physicality and farcical content of the second half is a welcome contrast and much more entertaining.

In a programme note Ayckbourn talks about ‘certain polarisations’ in society, ‘the private-army merchants on the right and the Marxist reactionaries on the left’. He sees his role as writer as presenting ‘the point of view of the little man in the middle’.

As the Chairman of the committee Robert Daws as Ray gives a convincingly characterised performance with an effortless hint of comedy. Mark Curry gives a subtle performance as Donald, the knowledgeable and experienced counsellor who is probably undermining the committee’s best interests in local Council meetings. A nice portrait of hypocrisy dressed up as concern.

The polarised figures are Deborah Grant as Helen and Craig Gazey as Eric the Marxist. Grant presents Helen as a full blooded and fearless Tory wife, used to throwing her weight about and getting her own way. A difficulty arises with Gazey’s interpretation of Eric. A speech that sounds as if it could be an impassioned defence of Marxism is made ridiculous by a distracting and superfluous clumsiness. A more subtle approach to debunking the speech would have been preferable. Or indeed, letting the language work for itself.

There is good support from the rest of the cast but the triumph of the night goes to Harry Gostelow whose fanatic soldier lights up the second half of the play and reveals an actor completely assured as a farceur.

Reviewer: Velda Harris

Are you sure?