Way Upstream

Alan Ayckbourn
Chichester Festival Theatre
Chichester Festival Theatre

Jill Halfpenny (Emma), Sarah Parish (June) and Jason Hughes (Alistair) Credit: Simon Annand

Chichester seems to have an affinity with water. It has had it flowing round a beautiful garden (Entertaining Angels), surrounding Neville’s Island and flooding in Grapes of Wrath.

They have danced in it, swum in it and have had it raining on them, but this is the first time they have had a full-sized cabin cruiser actually sailing on it, and what an amazing and magnificent scene it is.

On press night, the sight of the boat swinging around took everyone by surprise and caused a burst of applause. According to Jonathan Church (Artistic Director) and Alan Finch (Executive Director) “the theatrical transformation this show requires would not have been possible without the recent renewal of our Festival Theatre”.

A rocky river bank and seemingly impenetrable pine forest with real trees backs the scene, but almost all the action takes place on the boat where two couples are embarking on a twelve-night sailing holiday.

It doesn’t bode well right from the start as they arrive in the middle of the night, the boat is smaller than originally planned and their self-appointed captain has only recently learnt his river craft from an instruction manual. It’s not long before his bullying manner and the cramped conditions cause friction and resentment.

June (Sarah Parrish), his spoilt and sexually frustrated wife, would rather be in a comfortable hotel and spends the whole time complaining. Jill Halfpenny’s timid Emma is frightened of water and everything else as well, but she tries to make the best of the situation, while her husband Alistair (Jason Hughes) is so spineless and acquiescent that I wanted to shake him.

Adding to the complications and accidents along the way, Keith (Peter Forbes), trying to keep his business under his control, has his secretary (Nicola Sloane) come every day to give an update on the worsening situation. She struggles into view through the forest, but trying to follow his shouted instructions becomes too much to manage and finally Captain Keith has to leave his crew to sort things out.

So far this is pure Ayckbourn, emphasising the foibles and character flaws in perfectly ordinary middle-class families and the frequent comical tensions which arise when they are in close confinement, but the mention of Armageddon being the destination sounds a warning that all is about to change.

It changes with the arrival of a drifter, a traveller, but one who offers to get them out of their present predicament and help them on their way, a helper at the beginning, even bringing his hippy girlfriend along, but soon taking full and terrifying charge of their lives. Here, the whole play becomes quite Biblical with good fighting evil and leading to a very dramatic and tense battle taking place in the river.

Performed brilliantly by this talented cast under Nadia Fall’s precise direction, and with Ben Stones's superb set, Tim Mitchell’s effective lighting and Fergus O’Hare’s equally effective sound effects, this is a production to savour despite Ayckbourn’s strange journey into the surreal, and at least one couple survive the ordeal to have the holiday they had dreamed of.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor