The Family Way (All In Good Time)
Octagon Theatre Bolton
Octagon Theatre, Bolton
Elizabeth Newman's debut production as artistic director of the Octagon begins with the audience surrounding what look like lacy bed curtains with some kind of party going on inside—a little like the doll's house opening of Daldry's famous Inspector Calls production—until they are whisked away and the stage explodes into celebratory life.
The Octagon hasn't always pulled off its northern comedies of late, but this production of a popular play by one of Bolton's most famous playwrights keeps that energy and vivacity throughout to show that, despite some quaintly old-fashioned morality, this well-written comedy still stands up for a modern audience.
The play's two titles—three if you include the original Armchair Theatre episode for TV entitled Honeymoon Postponed—coyly step around the fact that this is a play about sex, or the lack of it, as bookish Arthur is unable to perform in the bedroom with his virginal new wife, even after six weeks of marriage.
It doesn't help that they are living with Harry's parents. He has a tempestuous relationship with his bombastic father Ezra who has rather old-fashioned expectations of his son—that certainly don't involve Arthur's beloved books and classical music.
While there are fine performances from Harry Long as Arthur and Jessica Baglow as his new wife Violet, the heart of the production comes from four of the best actors to have been seen regularly of late on the Octagon's stage.
David Birrell is wonderful as Ezra—the moment before the penny drops about what the issue is with the young couple is hilarious, but this is far more than just a good comic performance. Barbara Drennan gives a performance of equal stature as his wife Lucy. As the bride's parents, Colin Connor is great as the meek and mild husband who eventually rebels, again with a great partnership with Kathy Jamieson as his wife.
The scene between the four parents when they gather to decide what is to be done turns into a deep analysis of their own marriages in which long-buried frustrations are brought out into the open. Clever writing and perfectly-gauged performances make this a compelling but still funny scene.
Of course everything turns out well, but Ezra has the last word and it is a dark message with which to leave the audience. It's a good northern comedy, but it certainly isn't all light and fluffy.
This is an impressive opening for Newman's tenure, both for the standard of the production and for the calibre of actors she is already attracting.