PRIVATE FEARS IN PUBLIC PLACES
Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
Opened 6 May, 2005
***

The Orange Tree's association with its larger in-the-round counterpart, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, results in this visit by Alan Ayckbourn's production of last summer, now slightly recast. The play feels a little slight. Unlike most of Ayckbourn's work nowadays, it is powered by neither an obvious theme nor a novel conceit of staging or structure. Yes, it runs (unusually for him) without an interval, and consists of a series of short, intercut scenes like a screen drama, but as the playwright's programme notes observe, that's hardly unusual these days.

If the piece is About anything (with a capital A), it is about everyday losses and disappointments. Sloaney couple Nicola and Dan break up over Dan's drinking and fecklessness; the crisis comes as they are flat-hunting; estate agent Stewart leads an empty life, briefly illumined when he finds porn movies on the religious videos lent him by his strait-laced colleague Charlotte; she aims to redeem herself through good works, such as serving as a carer for the (offstage) invalid father of Ambrose, the barman of Dan's favoured watering hole; Dan places a personal ad, which becomes the latest in a long line responded to by Stewart's sister Imogen. Lives weave through one another, and through five discrete playing areas on the Orange Tree's compact stage; there are no happy endings for anyone.

Ayckbourn the director is now a master of maintaining the comedy without selling out the pathos, exemplified in the touchingly good-natured nondescription of Sarah Moyle's Imogen. The production is strewn with telling little touches: the immobile not-quite-room-temperature smile on the face of Charlotte (Alexandra Mathie) as she speaks about her beliefs, for instance, or the fact that Ambrose (Adrian McLoughlin) never gives anyone but the audience more than one piece of his personal puzzle his father's decades of anger are because Ambrose is gay. What's never particularly explained is Charlotte's split personality: usually puritanical, with occasional outbreaks into luridly clad domination.

In the context of Ayckbourn's work, this is both minor-key and a relatively minor play. On press night, though, the drama seemed to burst the boundaries of the stage: during Dan and Nicola's break-up scene, a "cling" was heard as an audience member, fiddling with the ring on his finger, accidentally dropped it, leading him to make desperate gestures of reassurance to his own partner sitting beside him.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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