Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
Opened 19 December, 2003

No, not Joan Armatrading (though that would be an intriguing idea). No, the Orange Tree's end-of-year musical is by Alan Ayckbourn and Paul Todd. The plot and the structural twist are both characteristically Ayckbournian: take a thirtysomething wife, frustrated with her comfortable if distant, taken-for-granted marriage, and put her on the stage in triplicate. Jacqui Charlesworth plays the flesh-and-blood Mary, alias "Me", with Jessica Martin and Stephanie Putson respectively as "Myself" and "I", a couple of alter egos constantly trying and failing to buck Mary up. In the first act, she is interviewed for a local paper after winning a "Mum of the Year" contest; in the second, this is itself revealed to be a fantasy, and she tries to salvage things with her slightly arid husband and thereby hold on to her own sanity.

Ayckbourn is clever as ever, having a lot of fun with significant pronoun shifts as the women discuss whether "the problem is Me" and so forth. Kim Grant reprises his adroit direction from the Orange Tree's first production of the show twenty-odd years ago, and the cast of four put their backs into it, especially Charlesworth and (doubling as both men) Nigel Richards.

Now for the "but". Todd's music is seldom really memorable, and although this was only ever intended as a small-scale musical, nevertheless Paul Harvard's solo piano accompaniment somehow feels even sparser than intended. Most of all, though, the whole piece is inescapably slight: it was originally written as a trio of lunchtime shows, and this two-act version (around 40 minutes each act) premièred not in one of the National Theatre's auditoria but in its foyer. Warm and intimate a space though the Orange Tree is, it still feels a little too big and a little too grand for such a modest bit of work. For heaven's sake, this is an Ayckbourn play, yet one with an unambiguously upbeat, hopeful ending in which no-one suffers at all; surely this alone is sufficient proof that he didn't consider it a particularly substantial opus. It's an amiable divertissement, but no more than that.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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