ALAN Ayckbourn had already written as many plays as Shakespeare by the age of 48, the age at which the Bard died, and has now completed almost 80 plays. He enjoys gimmicks, such as his Norman Conquest trilogy, in which the action takes place in three parts of the same house, living room, dining room and garden, over the same weekend, House and Garden; two plays running simultaneously in neighbouring auditoria of the same theatre, with cast dashing between the two, and his latest play, Roundelay opening next month, which has five short, related, plays performed in random order, decided by audience members drawing ping pong balls from a bag half an hour before the show.
Roleplay is the third in his Damsels in Distress trilogy, in which the same company of actors originally played different characters in three plays set in the same Docklands apartment in the early 1990s. We are introduced to a young couple who are about to meet each others’ parents for the first time and announce their engagement, but, being Ayckbourn, they are from different parts of the country, and social class. To add to the drama, an upstairs neighbour, a modern day gangster’s moll, is literally dropped into the action, along with her gun-toting minder, and the plot develops as the melting pot simmers away.
This is black comedy at its finest – we are laughing at other people’s misfortune, and Dramatic Productions bring every tiniest jot of humanity and humour out of the text.
The characters are established right from the start, with Rebecca Legrand and Conrad Hornby’s Julie-Ann and Justin setting everything up. This can sometimes be a difficult and thankless task, but these two accomplished actors play completely for truth, never slipping into caricature, and leaving us feeling for them as real people. Their high standard was matched by every other character as they arrived, through the window in the case of Celia Muir as retired exotic dancer Paige Petite, who performed a lap dance which would happily grace the bar of any East End pub. As her minder Micky, Steve Rollins settled into the role well by the second half, but seemed a little over-nervous, even for his character, in his first couple of scenes. Julie-Ann’s stereotypically-Northern parents were played to perfection by Russell Biles and Judy Norman, who could have stepped straight out of Emmerdale, but the Emmerdale Farm of the 1970s, before any scandal had reached Yorkshire.
Having been wonderfully set up in the script with three off-stage telephone calls, the final character we meet is Justin’s mother, Arabella Lazenby, who has to dominate the stage almost before she arrives, and Julia Savill did not disappoint in any way – she was completely believable in her drunken confusion of the two girls, and her comic timing was sublime, especially her few lines about a foreign taxi driver misunderstanding Surrey for “sorry”.
Ayckbourn gives actors wonderful material, which can sometimes sadly be ignored, misused, or even thrown away, but this cast and director milked it for every drop of pathos, humanity, and comic nourishment. Tightly directed by Kerry Gardner, this was top-notch entertainment, and I would thoroughly recommend tracking down Dramatic Productions and getting along to any of their future shows.