It’s Ayckbourn by a different playwright

By John Nathan, November 4, 2013
Impressive chopper: Robert Webb excels in Simon Paisley Day’s comedy at the Hampstead Theatre

Impressive chopper: Robert Webb excels in Simon Paisley Day’s comedy at the Hampstead Theatre

Hampstead Theatre, London NW3

Three couples, each with their own outlook on parenting. Briony (Tamzin Outhwaite) and Keith (Barnaby Kay) are old-school, left-wing hunt saboteur types who have read countless books on parenting only to end up with a troublesome three-year-old who still breast feeds. Serena (Issy van Randwyck) and Charles (Nicholas Rowe) are brazen, tweedy, Home Counties types whose attitude to everything is so live-and-let-live (unless you happen to be a partridge starring down the barrels of Charles’s shotgun) that they are not even sure how many kids they have. “Four or five,” says Serena breezily. Then there is Rosy (Sarah Hadland) and PR consultant Ross (Peep Show’s Robert Webb) who have it all but for whom boundaries are key, which is why they have such a perfect life and the “perfect number” of children (two), both of whom are perfectly well behaved.

It is almost always a pleasure to see a new Alan Ayckbourn comedy. This one, expertly paced for farce by the Hampstead’s Ed Hall, characteristically reveals the undercurrent of misery that often exists in even the happiest of marriages. The play has unorthodox sex, bawdy puns, occasional pratfalls, misunderstandings and crucially, the dismantling of middle-class certainties. Everything is exactly as you would expect with Ayckbourn, including hilarity and unashamedly crude characterisation. The only thing missing is Ayckbourn himself, because this is not a new Ayckbourn comedy, rather one by Simon Paisley Day, one of Britain’s most versatile stage actors and now also a promising playwright.

But to indulge the comparison, Paisley Day paints his contrasting married couples with broad brushstrokes that have that Ayckbourn quality of being both embarrassingly stereotypical and so recognisable.

The setting is a remote Welsh holiday cottage, where everyone has congregated without their children primarily to give Briony and Keith a break from parenting. Briony is suffering from (extremely) post-natal depression and is so highly strung she is about to snap.

Six people revealing their flaws may not be the most promising of set-ups so Paisley Day also lobs Serena’s sexually provocative 17-year-old niece (Bel Powley) into the mix, a Christian fundamentalist farmer and — in a nod to Chekov’s maxim about guns introduced in the first act always going off in the last — the aforementioned double-barrelled shooter.

It is all good knockabout stuff, out of which Paisley Day’s themes subtly emerge. And so do some pretty ropey plot devices, the least polished of which has mobile phone signals conveniently working or not working and the most promising of which — involving the unorthodox use of breast milk — culminates in a strangely motivated climax that wastes the gag almost as much as the milk. But there is enough good work on both page and stage — particularly Webb’s villainously deceitful Ross and Van Randwyck’s haughty Serena — to suspend disbelief long enough for the play’s best comedy moments to fly. Or even soar like Ayckbourn.

The Young Vic, London SE1

To say this musical by Cabaret and Chicago creators John Kander and the late Fred Ebb deserves all the accolades it received is somewhat of a back-handed compliment. In 2011 it was up for 12 Tony nominations, breaking the uncoveted record for being nominated for the most awards without winning any. With this London transfer it is possible to see why.

David Thompson’s book and Susan Stroman’s deeply ironic production (and choreography) tell the true story of nine young black lads falsely convicted of raping two Alabama women in 1931. But it is portrayed in the form of an old-school minstrel show — jazz hands and all. This is a bit like telling a Holocaust story through the ironic use of antisemitic stereotypes. But what makes this one so emotionally conflicted is that much of it is driven by superbly drilled musical numbers which in almost any other circumstances would elevate the audience towards the ecstatic heights to which nearly all musicals aspire.

Other than Julian Glover’s top-hatted interlocutor and Alabama judge, whites here are played by members of the excellent British and American black cast. And no matter how fine the dancing and singing, there is a limit to how exuberant the applause can be for a number such as Electric Chair, depicting the nightmare of a black 13-year-old boy being taunted with high voltage execution by white prison guards.

Enjoying a show and then feeling guilt for enjoying it is as wearing as it is rewarding.

Last updated: 10:45am, November 4 2013