DRAMATIC Productions are back at the Tivoli this Summer, with two plays, the Mike Leigh classic Abigail’s Party, and another play by the ever-prolific Alan Ayckbourn. Things We Do For Love is described by director Tracy Murray as “not done very often as the set is very complicated”, and when I looked it up online and found that it calls for the lower half of an upper floor to be part of the set, I was intrigued to see what she and her team had done to deal with this.
In reality, they didn’t do anything, they simply gave us a whole room, but I should not have worried, based on the three previous Ayckbourn plays I have seen them produce. The other three have all been completely honest to the playwright’s principle, that his plays are not written or described as comedies, but just plays, so that when performed with honesty and realism, true comedy comes through naturally, as well as something deeper.
As with most Ayckbourn domestic dramas the plot could be almost anything, as it is all about the wonderful characters he inhabits them with, in this case Barbara, who is about to rent her flat to old school pupil Nikki and her new fiance Hamish, and who has an admirer, Gilbert, living in her downstairs flat. Barbara works as assistant to Marcus, and she obviously wishes she was more than just his secretary. Marcus, along with his younger assistant, are two of Ayckbourn’s offstage characters who do not appear, like the infamous Dick and Lottie Potter in Absurd Person Singular, guests at each of the three gatherings in the play but never seen.
The four characters we do see are complete people, with their own idiosyncrasies and foibles, and the challenge for the actors and director is to help make us believe in them, to make them as real as people we already know, or at least people we might encounter on the “Clapham Omnibus” or in our favourite supermarket. Dramatic Productions seem to get this just right, and we find ourselves fascinated by Barbara’s central heating before the first scene has hardly started. Russell Biles, as Gilbert, who turns out to be much more than just an admirer, begins the play as a lovable odd-job man, telling us how the heating system works, and by the interval is an entirely convincing worshipper at his own shrine to Barbara, complete with many of her clothes and a ceiling painting of her wearing little more than a smile. The horror and surprise with which this painting is discovered and described is a high-point of this production, and shows off the acting skills of Celia Muir and Mark Freestone, playing Nikki and Hamish, very well. These two have to to play a sickeningly in love couple at the beginning whose relationship ends suddenly, leaving Nikki almost destroyed and Hamish in a brand new relationship, and I believed both of them. Julia Savill as Barbara convinces us she is almost a sexless spinster for the first half of the play before turning the Tivoli into Wimborne’s very own Cougar Town and almost sprinting into bed with Hamish as the first half ends. Yes, some of the twists and turns of the plot may seem a little far fetched, but as long as they are played with honesty, as they were tonight, we can believe almost anything.
This is rare opportunity to see another of Ayckbourn’s wonderfully-observed pieces of writing, and although part of me wonders how some possibilities for physical humour may have been missed by not having three floors on top of each other, it is bold and brave to see it attempted, and executed so well, on a local stage. As I have said before, I look forward to the next Ayckbourn in the safe and reliable hands of Dramatic Productions.