Things We Do For Love, now on tour after its West End run last year, is almost the quintessence of Alan Ayckbourn. Take a small group of people who are not exactly on the margins of society – in this case, brittle, defensive-aggressive corporate something-or-other Barbara, her old school friend Nikki, her fiancé Hamish and compulsive handyman Gilbert. Employ a conceit of staging or structure – here, Roger Glossop's design shows us Barbara's flat, the bottom few inches (up to knee level or so) of the flat above occupied by Nikki and Hamish, and, occasionally visible through a gauze, the upper reaches of Gilbert's basement place. Stir well – thus, Barbara and Hamish take an instant dislike to one another, and moderately predictably fall into bed at the first opportunity; meanwhile, Gilbert turns out to be obsessed with Barbara to the extent of painting a vast, nude portrait of her on his ceiling and hoarding her cast-off clothes ("Generally, I just look at them... generally...").
No great departures, then (the closest Ayckbourn gets to David Hare territory, for instance, is to have Gilbert discovered wearing a dress of Barbara's designed by Hare's wife Nicole Farhi), and in this respect it betrays Ayckbourn's greatest weakness – that it sometimes possible to sigh that he is "just" an observer and manipulator of "people". Indeed, in the first act, I found myself mildly shocked and certainly alienated by the uncharacteristic abrasiveness of the comedy of humiliation as Barbara spars verbally with Hamish. This is, however, Barbara's character (played by Belinda Lang with glistening, steely jaws snapping over a central pit of horrified emptiness) rather than authorial acerbity; the second act returns to the more traditionally Ayckbournian vein – what might be described as a compassionately created moral quagmire. Indeed, there is not just the shadow of Private Lives lying across this play (and, in Barbara and Hamish's knock-down, drag-out spat, Ayckbourn is no more condoning domestic violence than Coward was), but the deceitful couple's self-consuming guilt nods even towards Zola's Thérèse Raquin. The glassily smiling incomprehension of Lucy Scott's Nikki, the eternal victim (although directed by Mark Rayment as a little more grown-up than in the author's original production), when she asks the pair, "What about me?", is exquisitely heartbreaking.
Andrew Hall settles down well as Hamish from an initial burst of booming, and Adrian McLaughlin manages to look unassuming even in a scarlet evening gown. Ayckbourn scoffers may not be converted, but as ever, actually watching the play, and appreciating that it has both a head and a heart to it, should make them rather less secure in their prejudices.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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