A number of times in recent years, Alan Ayckbourn's plays have touched at least in passing on adolescent female sexuality and/or older man-younger woman relationships, real or dreamt-of. The most explicit – and uncomfortable – manifestation hitherto has been the failed attempt at schoolgirl self-prostitution in 2001's GamePlan. With Sugar Daddies, now playing in the Stephen Joseph's main in-the-round space in Scarborough, he finally portrays an actual relationship. Even here, though, he remains a little diffident, going to some lengths to emphasise that twentyish catering student Sasha and septuagenarian ex-pimp and East End godfather Val never consummate their arrangement sexually.
Tonally, the piece never settles in one place. The first half-hour or so consists of set-up (cheekily for a summer première, Val is dressed as Santa Claus on his first entrance); later in the opening act, we meet the eyepatch-wearing, growling new downstairs neighbour, Val's would-be nemesis, and there are suggestions that this may develop into one of Ayckbourn's very occasional undercover-agent or cops-and-robbers spoofs. The second act shows the extent to which Sasha, either innocently or willingly, is refashioned as Val's creature, to the point of all but disowning her flatmate and half-sister; then, the way Val begins to take her for granted as a youthful ornament but little more, even whilst he professes to be championing her. Finally, Sasha simply decides to switch off the dependent sugar-baby persona, ends things with Val and patches them up with sister Chloe, in an affirmative closing movement that bizarrely blends elements of A Doll's House and the likes of Sabrina The Teenage Witch.
Still, even uncertain Ayckbourn is going to be written and directed with an engaging skill that makes it worth watching. Especially so in this case, where I suspect the one thing about which Mr A was certain was that he wanted to create a vehicle for actress Alison Pargeter, who had played the sidekick in the aforementioned GamePlan and also shone in its sister plays in the Damsels In Distress triptych. The character of Sasha here makes full use of Pargeter's gift for portraying a gaucherie which is at once comical and entrancing, and she deftly and enjoyably carries the evening through its pick 'n' mix selection of moods and registers.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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