In the year of Alan Ayckbourn's 60th birthday, it is not his own theatre in Scarborough but the West Yorkshire Playhouse which has chosen to stage some, at least, of his most structurally audacious work, Intimate Exchanges. Ayckbourn wrote 31 scenes for this 1982 series of five-scene plays: one first scene, two second scenes, four third scenes and so on, bifurcating at each juncture, beginning only a few seconds in with headmaster's wife Celia's decision whether or not to light her first cigarette of the day. This decision itself supplied the title of Alain Resnais's diptych of films based on the plays, Smoking and No Smoking. Director Alan Dossor has chosen, like Resnais, to follow a few specific routes rather than trying to cover the entire waterfront: this run of Affairs In A Tent is followed in April by A Game Of Golf and in May by Love In The Mist (these being, strictly speaking, the titles of the long fourth scenes which act as the backbone of a given evening).
If grasping such complexity seems hard on an audience, think of the actors: the six roles in Affairs In A Tent are played by two quick-changing actors, Andrina Carroll and Ken Bradshaw. Of course, much fun is derived from the games Ayckbourn plays with offstage characters and voices – he even, at one stage, pulls off a "gypsy switch", allowing Carroll to exit and re-enter in another guise to chat to what appears to be her trussed-up self. In other words, most of the delight here derives from our appreciation of form rather than content. The crucial scene shows once again Ayckbourn's mastery at portraying ordinary people's breakdowns from accretions of everyday stresses, but the final scene played here, A Funeral, shows too stark a discontinuity between Celia before and after her "collapse" – a passing line about "a year and a half in hospital" is no substitute for a through line which Carroll can apply to her characterisation – this is, simply, an entirely different Celia. Nevertheless, Carroll's central performance is nicely built up, and if her teenybopper cleaner is too hastily sketched in, she also provides us with a cheerily daunting, tweedily Wagnerian matron. Bradshaw establishes his characters more rapidly and broadly (and plays Celia's husband Toby shamelessly as a clone of the late John Wells), but the two mesh nicely together. As so often with Ayckbourn, what seems when drily explained on paper to be overly demanding turns out in the event to lead one seductively on, so that at the end we are surprised how far from convention we have come.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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