Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
Opened 22 July, 2008

Alan Ayckbourn is both generous and fastidious in his supply of plays: he likes to package several at a time together neatly. A few years ago he induced apoplexy in the Scarborough theatre crew well into preparations for his new diptych of plays by announcing apologetically that they were now a triptych; this season, to complement his two extant “supernatural” plays Haunting Julia (1994, three male roles) and Snake In The Grass (2002, three female roles), he has written a third (his 71st play in all!), to utilise all six players.

Often, though, the individual plays are lesser creations when removed from the package. In this case, viewing Life And Beth without having seen its predecessors, I felt that I was watching a coda having missed the main work. By all accounts, the other two plays are darker in tone than this whimsical tale of Beth, the late-middle-aged widow of an over-enthusiastic health and safety manager who finds that he is refusing to let even death slow him down… in other words, his smugly prattling ghost continues to try to order her life.

Liza Goddard enjoys playing against type, as with her Beth here, a phlegmatic Yorkshirewoman. Conversely, Susie Blake often relishes getting blowsy as in her portrayal of Connie, the late Gordon’s Merlot-swilling estuarial sister. As for Adrian McLoughlin’s portrayal of Gordon himself, imagine Harry Enfield’s “You don’t wanna do that!” character magnified several times and played by the late Reg Varney.

It’s nicely written and cleverly staged in the playwright’s own production (including a final set of coups de théâtre which mock virtually all that has gone before). However, it’s less akin to his prime slices of dramatic chiaroscuro where powerful poignancy and/or bitterness flows along just beneath the laughs, and more like the easily digestible fare which is what most folk (mis)understand Ayckbourn’s work to be. It is also a play about closure, and suggests that Mr A is now turning his mind to the imminent end of his (by then) 37-year artistic directorship of this theatre and its predecessors; the autumn/winter season will be his last before Chris Monks takes over the helm. I suspect that Gordon is Ayckbourn’s unflattering caricature of his own continued presence staging his works at the SJT during his “afterlife”, but I’m sure there will be no call for a similar exorcism.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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