Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘Better Off Dead’ and ‘Joking Apart’, which are in rep at The New Vic Theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme until October 27th.
The great news is that this year’s new Alan Ayckbourn play is absolutely splendid. After around 80 dramas, he has finally placed centre stage the subject he knows best. Himself.
Algy Waterbridge is a septuagenarian writer of high repute… ‘a major living novelist’ … who has written an astounding number of successful crime novels. We see him in his summer house banging out the 34th book featuring his famous grumpy old Yorkshire DCI, Tommy Middlebrass, and his young side kick, Gemma. As he taps away, the figments of Algy’s imagination creep around his garden on their latest cold case, with Tommy intent on proper coppering and showing his young apprentice how to get results the old-fashioned, instinctive way. His creations creak with clichés…which in Ayckbourn’s hands are hilarious.
But, doubtless like Alan, Algy is beset by interrupting idiots; his mithering PA, his sadly deranged wife, and a bonkers journalist after an exclusive interview – despite never having read a word he’s written and not actually knowing his name. How many author interviews has Ayckbourn given? It must be thousands…all of which are wrapped up in one brilliantly squirming duologue with this self-possessed reporter who wastes eons of time by endlessly going on about himself.
Every gripe poor Alan has accumulated in 6 decades of authorship is invested in one sensationally funny scene.
In the second half he re-sharpens his pen for publishers. Again, the territory is so familiar. It’s a family company, but the gentle father figure who nurtured Algy’s rise to literary stardom has passed on, to be replaced by his tycoon son who arrives in an excruciatingly loud helicopter, intent on ‘dropping’ his dad’s time-worn author.
Anyone who has ever felt ‘passed over’ by progress must surely relate to this beautifully constructed duel. His suited visitor barely listens to Algy’s rear-guard action.
These conversations are pure masterpieces of pastiche. But there is another dialogue that outclasses even them. The clue is in the play’s title. Algy’s charmingly demented wife thinks she’s off to his funeral and assumes her husband is merely a man sent to sort the drains. And so Ayckbourn sets up a perfectly beautiful, amazingly emotional, scene in which Jessica tells the ‘stranger’ all about her life-long marriage to the man she so loved, despite his devilishly cantankerous ways. The truth pours out of her. It is pure Prunella.
These are some of Ayckbourn’s finest ever scenes, which draw upon a long career of ever-improving writing. He has uncorked a bottle of his finest wine.
His cast of regulars must be constantly aware that every play he writes might be his last … and do him proud.
Christopher Godwin is simply superb as the aged writer – tall, lean and blasphemous; railing against the ludicrous modern world. Like the author, the actor puts his whole life into the evening. His timing, cadences and delivery are effortlessly precise. His exasperation is creasingly funny. His put downs are perfect. The plethora of original ‘old-age’ jokes are written and told with an old man’s glee. It’s a pleasure to behold.
There is something ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ about Liz Jadav’s portrayal of Algy’s bumptious secretary; an interfering woman he can’t live with … or without; the irritant in his life, who saves his day. Russell Dixon delivers the crustiest of old coppers who still believes women should not be seen in pubs on Friday nights. And Leigh Symonds (wearing the worst stage wig ever) is devastatingly funny as the branching-out obituary writer who gets his piece placed in his regular column by mistake.
It’s an exquisite evening of vintage quality. Anyone who has ever loved Ayckbourn should be hammering on the box office door.
Leigh Symonds also shines in the Scarborough Company’s companion play. The Stephen Joseph theatre habitually revives one of Ayckbourn’s works from forty years ago to present in rep with his new one. This year it’s the turn of ‘Joking Apart’; which the writer/director admits he struggled to get right in the 70s. Unfortunately, the problem persists.
It has all the Ayckbourn theatrical hall marks. The same set of characters appear in scenes four years apart and Naomi Petersen makes a grand job of playing four different girlfriends in quick succession. Symonds is the star turn as the annoyingly pernickety Sven, who has to have the last word on every matter until people get so fed up they stop listening to him.
The story goes that Ayckbourn was challenged by a play-goer to write about a couple of the nicest people you could wish to meet. As it turns out, Anthea and Richard are so wonderfully lovely and terminally kind they demolish everyone around them. But the piece feels like an episodic experiment these days. The new play is light years ahead of it. Go see it.
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