West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Opened 6 May, 1999

Some time in the last month, West Yorkshire Playhouse took the decision to change tack for the third and last of their routes through Alan Ayckbourn's Intimate Exchanges series of plays. At the end of each scene, a decision taken by one of the characters leads to one of two outcomes, such that from a single opening scene the players and audience can arrive at any of sixteen different endings. The originally announced presentation Love In The Mist is the one "next door", as it were, to A One Man Protest as now on show. In both plays, prep-school governor Miles, his too-discreet advances spurned by his best friend the headmaster's wife Celia, goes on to proposition her teenage home help Sylvie; however, where we would originally have seen Sylvie accept his offer and embark with him on a walking tour of the British coastline, here she too turns Miles down, leading him to lock himself for several weeks into Toby and Celia's garden shed. (Last month's presentation, A Game Of Golf, was next door on the other side, with Celia hesitantly returning Miles's attentions.)

It is a fine example of Ayckbourn's emotional deftness: just like those eye- and brain-teasing pictures which can resolve themselves into either two white faces or one black candlestick, the playwright presents a set of entirely un-extraordinary events (well, apart from the shed business) which can moment by moment oscillate between being greatly amusing and tangibly disturbing. His other great craft is to play with theatrical resources and conventions so that we at once intellectually appreciate his games whilst continuing to suspend our disbelief. In this case, the six characters who appear onstage are portrayed by a mere two actors, Ken Bradshaw and Andrina Carroll; yet, although fully aware of this (I had, after all, seen both the Playhouse's previous outings through these plays), I still found myself frequently glancing at the garden shed, half-expecting to see Miles through its grimy window, even when Bradshaw was in plain view onstage as either Celia's Denis Thatcherish husband Toby or as wide-boy handyman Lionel Hepplewick. Carroll, too, in her portrayals of Celia, Sylvie and Miles's wife Rowena who embarks on serial adulteries to try "to keep myself interesting" has, over the course of the plays, both gradually presented the differing facets of these characters and come to give more powerfully self-contained performances for those who may only see this particular version of events.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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