Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
Opened 4 December, 2001

I suppose it's possible that the children of Scarborough are just exceptionally well-behaved, but the levels of ebullience outside the auditorium suggest that no, they're not quite the Stepford Kids. The more likely explanation is simply that, when in the Stephen Joseph Theatre itself, the unusually low levels of whispering and fidgeting are because they're wholly caught up in Alan Ayckbourn's play.

"Play" is the operative word. With his adult plays, Ayckbourn has shown himself unable to resist gleefully frolicking with conventions of dramatic structure, staging and the like; this summer just past, he became so happily engrossed in writing a pair of semi-companion pieces to be played with the same acting company that he astounded even his own colleagues by announcing at short notice that he'd written and would stage a third in the same season. His work for younger audiences likewise capers around, but more often with notions of storytelling itself.

In This Is Where We Came In, the 1990 play which he has revived as this year's Christmas show, these ideas are tackled head-on, as a company of "story-players" find themselves compelled to act out the tales of a trio of elderly "story-tellers". The catch is that each story-teller has a particular quirk: Uncle Erraticus gets things muddled, so that Gretel and his sister Hansel (yes) find themselves trapped in a witch's house made out of snakes and fingers instead of cakes and ginger; Uncle Oblivious keeps forgetting the words, leaving the Frog Prince and his princess juddering like a stuck CD (he also has a strange obsession with cricket); and Great-Aunt Repetitius... well, you can guess. They are, in the most literal sense, unreliable narrators.

When rogue player Flavius begins to recover from his amnesia and tries to wrest the players' control of their own destiny back from the tellers, the tales become the battleground for the power struggle. The Ayckbournian cleverness makes it Great-Aunt Repetitius's fault itself (which is in effect no more than the sort of narrative patterning so frequently found in folk tales) which provides the key to the players' liberation.

On one level, then, this is a classic freedom-versus-tyranny tale; on another, it is a metaphor for rites of passage and growing up to independence; most directly, though, it's a rattling good way of telling yarns with a blend of reassuring familiarity and exciting freshness. Glyn Williams as Flavius is the kind of heroic yet fallible innocent that Mr A is partial to in such plays, Alison Pargeter and Paul Kemp have the plum roles among the players, and Geoffrey Whitehead turns Uncle Oblivious from the slightest of the storytellers as scripted into the most entertaining in performance. The simple but ingenious staging is also a trademark of Ayckbourn's work for children, keeping the stories themselves to the fore. And the children and their parents and teachers alike are rapt, and rightly so.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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