at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester
Ayckbourn's dark, tragical farce continues to draw audiences to its uneasy social comedy.
The Mercury's in-house production sets the action firmly in the 70s – an incredibly evocative Foxton set, almost palatial ["now we know where the money's going..."], tastefully done out in orange and brown, with a bar area, a kitchen beyond, and even the back garden beyond that. It's a home that Mike Leigh's estate agent Laurence [Abigail's Party] would have loved to sell, and with which he and Beverly would feel very comfortable.
Not that there's much comfort in this tea party. Colin, the guest of honour, has lost his fiancée in a drowning accident, and five people, none of whom seem very fond of him, invite him over from a sense of duty.
The irony of the piece is that Colin's happiness, despite his loss, is the obverse of their marital difficulties, the familiar Ayckbourn cocktail of infidelity and lack of understanding.
At first, some of the characters seem less "right" than the lounge and the music. But as the excellent ensemble work brings out their hidden failings and frustrations, we get to know them better, and come to accept the readings the actors give.
No qualms at all about Ben Livingstone's Colin. He catches to perfection the social, and physical, awkwardness of the man, his annoying sincerity and his desperate worship of the late Carol. And he remains, to the last, impervious to the emotional maelstrom to which he brings his fond memories and his albums of snaps. Equally impressive is Gina Isaac's Marge: nervy, uptight, outraged, dispensing TLC over the phone to her overweight valetudinarian Gordon [another absent friend], mopping up the spills, her body language painfully well observed.
Our hosts, owners of the spider plant and the hock glasses, are played by Ignatius Anthony as the awful Paul – moustache, track suit, a bully and a bastard. He is particularly strong in his final breakdown. A nice unravelling, too, from Amanda Haberland as his wife Diana: the cream jug moment, of course, but also her Mountie speech, which manages to be moving, heart-rendingly sad, and funny at the same time.
David Tarkenter's John, restless, with an aversion to any mention of death, nervously scoffing sandwiches, and Clare Humphrey's knowing Evelyn, complete a very strong cast.
Gari Jones's production is outstanding in its handling of the numbing awkwardness of the situation – the players rigid with mortification, or moving clumsily in a pussyfooting ballet of embarrassment. Sometimes he has his characters shouting and pointing lines where British suburban understatement might be more appropriate, but the silences are poignantly eloquent, and tiny moments of social observation [like the arguing over 20p] are wonderfully done.
And Seasons in the Sun – a hit the very same year as Ayckbourn's play, if I recall – is an inspired choice for the final tableau of despair before the curtain call.
production photo: Robert Day