Even now, more than 60 plays into his career, Alan Ayckbourn still gets some flak for only writing about the middle class. His response is that it's the sort of middle class that we all belong to; this has always been his line, and it has been proved prophetic. Nor does "middle-class" mean comfortable; the first home-town revival of his Way Upstream since its 1981 première in Scarborough suggests that he also foresaw what would shortly afterwards become the discomfiting "yuppie nightmare" film genre. Way Upstream is a kind of English petit-bourgeois variant on Cape Fear, in which two couples holidaying on a cramped river cruiser find themselves befriended, then taken over, then terrorised by an at first affable stranger.
There's a notice just outside the Stephen Joseph Theatre's main auditorium: "Members of the public are requested not to cross the stage at any time." Well, that's not really very likely, unless they've brought waders. Ayckbourn has always enjoyed pushing the boundaries both of play structure and of set design, and this play achieved a certain notoriety for calling for the stage to be flooded and a cabin cruiser floated on it. Indeed, not just floated, but in Michael Holt's remarkable design (which also includes practical rain and mist, and even an artificial river current), navigated around the pool. I dislike the kind of West End mega-spectacular where bits of technical ingenuity draw rounds of applause, but it never occurs to you to begrudge it in this case.
This is a play about power: the little Napoleon who insists on being skipper (John Branwell), his ineffectual business partner, the worm who finally turns (Matthew Cottle) and that insinuating newcomer (Stephen Beckett) are character types that all crop up in various of Mr A's other works. However, the interaction works especially well here, perhaps because the domestic aspect is subordinate to the overt command structures even on such a piddling little river craft. But there's a discreet richness to the domestic stuff too: Saskia Butler has a number of barely perceptible moments with Cottle that suggest a complexity to their relationship beneath the banal words, and Maeve Larkin plays interloper Vince's patrician squeeze as a woman more than simply dazzled or tyrannised by him, suggesting that the writer-director himself is still finding new possibilities in the piece. And even the boat gets to take a curtain call of its own: as an unnamed member of staff remarked to me, "Alan does like his toys."
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
Return to index of reviews for the year 2003
Return to master reviews index
Return to main theatre page
Return to Shutters homepage