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.
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.
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.
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