In the final moment, we hear but do not see a door slam. The onstage family has already been through marriage, divorce and bereavement, but this is the single most unexpected narrative event. Two and three-quarter hours leading up to an offstage sound effect might seem a bit excessive, although one could probably say the same about Hedda Gabler; however, Torben Betts' Clockwatching does not really bear comparison with Ibsen.
Betts is the latest young "school of Ayckbourn" playwright to be nurtured by the Stephen Joseph Theatre, and Clockwatching is on show in the smaller in-the-round space of the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond (in a new association between the two venues) before moving north in May to Sir Alan's Scarborough home. The younger writer has the master's eye and ear, but a darker heart and an as yet unformed spirit: by which I mean that his play is excellently written but predominantly gloomy and shows no reason for having been made in the first place.
His wife in hospital, elderly Keith is going rapidly to pot in the family's northern home. Daughter Anna and her husband Duncan keep popping down from Scotland to take care of him (and of mother Margaret, when she returns to an offstage convalescence), but are already struggling under the psychological and financial burdens of caring for an autistic son (also offstage); Anna's brother Paul, an unspecified but shady wheeler-dealer and wannabe rock star, also keeps turning up with his trophy girlfriend Sarah, an aspiring actress with the hots for Duncan. In an Ayckbournian structure, we follow the family over a year's worth of significant dates – New Year, November 5th, Boxing Day – as they are each ground down by the everyday.
Betts is unobtrusively skilful at showing the banality of hypocrisy: Duncan trying to play down to Anna his own collection of pornography but embarrassed to read aloud to Margaret from a sex-and-shopping novel, Sarah sleeping on the couch she once declared vile in order to get away from Paul, or just Keith mumbling, "No, you're all right," but meaning, "I'm all right, so don't you dare do what you just suggested". His comedy, too, arises naturally out of characters and events, but there is far too little of it to leaven the remorseless, unspectacular suffering of everyone on or off the stage. It is difficult to see what the playwright wanted to say with the piece, except that life hurts people, which is hardly news. When he begins to steer his obvious abilities in a perceptible direction, Betts will be impressive; at the moment, one's admiration for him is outweighed by the chore of enduring such a prolonged theatrical sigh.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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