Palace Theatre, Watford
Opened 14 June, 1994

The passing years have not always been kind to early Alan Ayckbourn plays, still less to pseudo-early Alan Ayckbourn plays. Middle-Age Spread, written in 1977 by Roger Hall, contains several of what we think of as Mr A's hallmarks: adultery in professional suburbia, a nice dinner party at which the can of interpersonal worms is opened, and above all a resolutely non-linear chronology.

Hall (the writer of ITV sitcom Conjugal Rites) has relentlessly updated his script to the post-Thatcher era, peppering the dinner-table conversation with references to Back To Basics and homeless people sleeping in doorways on the Strand. Such revision is no mean feat, given that three of the six characters are in teaching; whole swathes of discussion deal with market forces, new universities and chronic resource shortages. Indeed, debating more than once takes over from drama as Hall determines to show his and his characters' awareness of current society.

What results is quite a different kind of playing with time: '90s concerns expressed in an inescapably '70s dramatic form. This curious and accidental mismatch poses difficulties of its own for the director and cast: to which of the two strains should their performances be more faithful? Director Justin Greene opts to follow the style rather than the content, as the characters observe their slightly anachronistic social niceties until the soul-baring moment of truth.

Don Warrington gets the best deal as bed-hopping professional cynic Reg, whose tart opinions are well suited to Warrington's forte of being at once languorous and acerbic. As the host of the party, newly appointed headmaster Colin, Andrew Secombe gives too stilted a performance for us ever really to engage with the character's dilemmas. The rest of the company pitch their tents midway between these two poles, uncertain which direction to take. (It is particularly frustrating to see Jan Ravens, herself a producer of ground-breaking radio comedy in the early 1980s, plunged into such temporal confusion in the name of humour.)

The time-scheme of successive scenes adds interest without clever-clever irritation, the production itself is agreeably smooth, and Roger Hall does know how to write comedy. Unfortunately, he does not properly know how to rewrite it, and ends up not relieving the more tired aspects of his play but throwing them into sharp relief.

Written for the London Evening Standard.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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