His last work, Roundelay, was one of his clever games with five short plays linked by common characters and performed in random order each time, the order being decided by a member of the audience drawing balls from a bag, in a similar way to a draw for the next round of football’s FA Cup.
This year he has returned to his favourite area of relatively normal happenings in suburbia, with a traditional format of two acts running chronologically, and gives us a tale of a hero soldier returning to his home town with his new wife Madrababacascabuna, who is fortunately known as Baba. The cleverness this time is with the set, having the kitchen of one residence, the lounge of another and a room in a Travelodge all on stage at once, and the action switching between the three, reminiscent of Taking Steps, with three floors on one level stage.
After 17 years away, some things have changed in this Northern town, but Alice, the lady he left at the altar, is still there, now Mayor, and married to model train enthusiast Derek. His best friend Brad is as competitive as ever, and a couple of the challenges he embarks on in this play form the main dramatic threads.
Ayckbourn has said many times that the secret to his plays is in the reality of the playing – we need to completely believe in the characters, so that we think we are watching a fly-on-the-wall documentary about some dysfunctional people, rather than a soap opera. A badly directed production of Ayckbourn can often seem somewhere in between, like a semi-scripted reality show such as Bournemouth-based Close to the Edge, but this time the show is directed by the master himself, and we are treated to the skill and craft that the writer has developed over fifty years.
Ayckbourn cast the production too, with many of his cast having worked with him before, half of them were in Roundelay last year, and this pedigree shines through every part of every character. We completely believe these people, trust them as true, and therefore feel for them, or against them, as we see the drama unfold.
The writing is as good as ever, with accurate observation on every level, and of all ages, from a rebellious teenage daughter, played so accurately by Emma Manton, who also plays this daughter’s mother Kara with a similar truth, to the older husband Derek, with Russell Dixon showing once again his consummate talent, having brought Roundelay’s judge to life so wonderfully.
I am so glad I saw Dixon in both plays, as he is so different in them, and this shows just what a talented actor he is, and how closely observed his playing. As Derek he is somewhere between Peter Sallis and Richard Briers, bringing the writer’s sad, but extremely honest and reliable, character to life, with such subtle poignancy when he reveals the reason for his model railway, which has taken over the whole house, and seems just a comic aside until we hear of its origin.
Richard Stacey, another veteran of Roundelay, plays the returning hero Murray with the right level of doubt and panache, given the clever denouement, and Evelyn Hoskins is every inch the foreign bride, her English improving throughout the play as she attends more lessons.
The third Roundelay cast member, Elizabeth Boag, plays the jilted Alice, now safely with Derek, wanting to take over the town, but struck down very convincingly by an onstage stroke of some kind. The sixth character, Murray’s old friend Brad, is played with charm and believable sleaziness by Stephen Billington, and his journey through the play takes us almost from Ayckbourn-land to Midsomer, but I had better not spoil it any further.
Hero’s Welcome is a well crafted, thought-provoking, accurately played and thoroughly entertaining addition to the canon of our greatest living playwright, and after this short Spring tour, in repertory with Confusions, an Ayckbourn classic, the same cast are performing in its American premiere on Broadway in May. Surely it is destined to become another classic. I certainly hope so.