Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
Opened 4 May, 2004

You could be excused for thinking Alan Ayckbourn has rattled off his latest play with more than usual alacrity. As the Becks/sex/txt saga rumbles on, Drowning On Dry Land examines the phenomenon of celebrity in contemporary Britain. It parades a comprehensive selection of celeb sub-species: those who have attained fame through talent, through opportunism, through determination or simply through indefinable star quality.

Protagonist Charlie Conrad is firmly in the final category, and is the perfect hero for the underdog-obsessed British: failed athlete, failed quiz contestant, failed TV presenter, Charlie's gift is to be "useless at everything", in a kind of apotheosis of ordinariness. He is also a typical Ayckbourn innocent: caught up in the machinery, but fundamentally good-hearted and too trusting. His wife grows frustrated with his effortless eclipse of her abilities; a predatory TV journalist prepares to stitch him up; but he is finally undone when a genuine fan, hired as a clown for his son's birthday party, takes things too far and then seizes her chance to exploit the resultant brouhaha.

The mandatory clever Ayckbournian setting is here a matter more of concept than physical construction. Two of the exits supposedly lead into a Victorian folly of a tower, cunningly built (we are told) so that its staircase simply leads right round to where you started, without ever taking you closer to the top... how's that for a symbol of fame?

Elsewhere, though, Ayckbourn periodically shows signs of a most uncharacteristic flaw: overwriting. Charlie is sometimes too insightful, or too arcane (with his musing on neutron stars, which cannot be seen, their existence only inferred from the behaviour of other bodies around them), or too epigrammatic, to be entirely the holy fool he is intended to be, despite Stephen Beckett giving an engaging performance which almost rides smoothly over these clunks. The contrivance of Act Two, Scene One is also a little bald: Mr A evidently wanted to write a courtroom scene, but didn't want to relocate from the single garden set, so it becomes an exploratory meeting which happens to include some fearsome cross-examination from Stuart Fox's nicely unlikeable lawyer.

The play is close to being Ayckbourn at his unapologetic minor-key best, dishing out laughs along the way but not modulating the ultimately downbeat, pensive impression. In the end, though, it just misses the mark. Still, for someone so often accused of writing too easily, it will at least be a novel criticism to say that the effort here sometimes shows through.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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