THE 21st of the 80-plus plays written by Alan Ayckbourn Ten Times Table comes from the 1970s, one of the most prolific and successful periods in his writing career.
No fewer than 17 of his plays were successfully professionally produced at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough and London’s West End during this decade.
This wonderfully-observed comedy follows the fortunes of a group planning to stage a pageant in a small market town. Under the ineffective chairmanship of Ray, a battle ensues between Ray’s reactionary wife Helen and the firebrand Marxist teacher Eric, who is determined that the proletariat should win the reenacted clash between The Pendon Twelve and the local Militia. Eric sees the Twelve as martyrs.
Committee shenanigans don’t change, and although the play is firmly set in the 1970s, it still gives rise to some terrific comedy opportunities.
Director Robin Herford, maybe best know as the man who commissioned and directed the long-running thriller The Woman in Black, still running in London after 30 years and returning to Bath Theatre Royal next May. Robin spent many years at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, so he is also no stranger to directing comedy. He makes excellent use of Ayckbourn’s beautifully crafted dialogue, and a group of actors highly experienced in playing farcical comedy.
They are headed by Robert Dawes, whose Ray gets more and more frustrated and slightly frantic as he desperately tries to keep the two warring sides of his committee together. His chances diminish as Craig Gazey’s Eric becomes fired up with passion for the cause of the Pendon Twelve, and Deborah Grant (Helen) aided by Harry Gostelow, whose fiery Tim is as violently right wing as Eric is left, becomes ever deeper entrenched in her efforts to thwart the Pendon Twelve and bring victory to the Militia.
Mark Curry as the forever- prevaricating local councillor on the committee, and Elizabeth Power as his not- quite-so-deaf-as-she-would- have-you-believe mother, vainly trying to take the minutes of the meetings, with some excellent comedy timing scoop up many more laughs. Gemma Oaten as Tim’s frustrated sister falls under Eric’s passionate spell, Rhiannon Handy is Eric’s mouse-like partner and Robert Duncan is the beautifully judged friendly sorrowful forever drunk Laurence. Together they round off a strong acting team.
The one thing the production is short of is comic business, particularly in the final act when things are building up to final battle. There was room for so much more comedy business which would have finished the play with a real flourish of laughter. As it was we had to be content with Ayckbourn’s wonderful dialogue and storylines to provide most of the laughs, and this they did extremely well.