Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
Opened 29 May, 2001

Alan Ayckbourn's ostensible ambitions for his 58th play, GamePlan, are simple: he would like in a small way to revive the permanent company system of theatre, and so this piece and his next, FlatSpin in July, will be staged with the same seven actors on the same set in Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre. Being Ayckbourn, his achievements with the work are, of course, much more complex.

GamePlan is the darkest and most unsettling of the (mere) score or so of Ayckbourn plays I have seen. At the matinee performance I attended, the audience gave few even moderate laughs in the second half, as the author for once dispenses with the sugar coating on his bitter pills of family sacrifice, friendship and social morality. In the first half the laughs come thick and fast, but in the light of the events portrayed this is even more disturbing still.

Lynette Saxon and her 16-year-old daughter Sorrel face lonely penury following the collapse of both Lynette's marriage and her dot-com venture. While mum works as an office cleaner, Sorrel decides to contribute to the family finances by launching herself clandestinely on the Internet as prostitute "randy Mandy" and enlisting her mousey best friend Kelly as her "maid"; the first client, a lonely widower, is enough to persuade Sorrel she cannot go through with the idea, but the girls then find they have a post-coital corpse on their hands.

Ayckbourn is fascinated by both the commercial possibilities and the potential for identity transformations offered by the Net, and as a sequence in his recent play House shows, he also has a grim sensitivity towards adolescent sexuality. Yet, for such a master craftsman, what he relies on to keep the laughs coming here is a sense that he has not actually done his job: that he is no more than the escapist boulevardier as whom he is even now all too often portrayed, that there is no need for us to suspend our disbelief, that the events shown are dismissable as unreal. Because once you grant plausibility to the sequence in which the girls deal with their client with a mixture of awkwardness and gauche mock-professionalism (in a pair of excellent performances by Saskia Butler and Alison Pargeter)... once you start considering that this is a sixteen-year-old girl in a PVC basque and thigh-boots writhing with ludicrous insincerity but fierce commitment on the sofa... the scene stops being easily humorous and becomes almost unbearable in the blackness of its social and moral content.

This would be brilliant if it were what Ayckbourn intended (and I would be extremely interested to see how the scene played to a teen audience), but on this occasion I fear he simply hasn't stirred the mixture together enough. The second half, with a scripture-spouting cop and a sleazoid magazine hack, finds a consistency of mood precisely because Lynette, Sorrel and Kelly face the same reality together: its dilemmas are scarcely less bleak, but as they proceed from a different, more informed baseline, the trio's resolutions come to seem affirmative where the acts of the first half, for all Sorrel's diligence and determination, were simply rash. But one cannot get rid of the aftertaste of that troublous first act: it continues to haunt, and not in the way that a piece of theatre should.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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