Jermyn Street Theatre, London SW1
Opened 24 February, 2011

Alan Ayckbourn’s 2004 play receives its London première in what is geographically a West End theatre, but is still a basement studio with a capacity of 70. This is one of Mr A’s plays which are not definitively in either a comic major key nor a pensive minor one, leaving many folk uncertain what song they should be singing in response to it.
Events of the past seven years have also modulated it from a satire to a prophecy. When it was written, contemporary celebrity culture was in its first full flowering, with the public eager to lionise anyone for nothing very much at all; since then, Ayckbourn’s insight into the British fondness for an underdog has been borne out to the point where now, as in his play, we exalt individuals precisely because, like protagonist Charlie Conrad here, they are “useless at everything”. In Christopher Coghill’s portrayal, Charlie does not even have the charisma for which others laud him: a bloke-next-door affability, but no more. Consequently, after he is caught engaging in an ill-advised fumble with a fan (who, to increase the grotesquerie, is dressed as a clown for Charlie’s son’s birthday party), he has no qualities to maintain him as a media property once sponsors and editors drop him.
As Charlie’s agent, comedian and presenter Les Dennis (himself no stranger to the media carousel) gives a first-rate performance. I have long admired the commitment Dennis brings to each dramatic role he takes, even when his choice of play has been dubious, not to say incomprehensible. Here, performer and material mesh splendidly; he even brings what may be a twinge of personal insight to the motif of other characters’ repeated inquiries after his wife.
Guy Retallack’s direction rides Ayckbourn’s writing well, even when the latter falters as with a too-contrived courtroom scene manqué set in a garden or Charlie’s implausible musings about neutron stars. Georgia Lowe has created one of the finest designs I can recall seeing at this address, including even an Escher-like folly of a tower whose staircase supposedly leads right round to the starting point, so that one never emerges at the top… there’s symbolism for you. And our adulation of the incompetent continues; in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, Ireland will be represented by Jedward.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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