Just over a quarter of a century ago, Alan Ayckbourn's trilogy The Norman Conquests confirmed him not simply as a skilled and sensitive writer of comedies but as a puckish manipulator of dramatic structure. Each of those plays recounts the events of a single family weekend, but in a different location – dining room, living room, garden. House And Garden, the diptych he has now written to celebrate his sixtieth birthday, does likewise, but with two added twists. Firstly, where events in the Normans only actually overlapped occasionally, for a few minutes of narrative at a time, those in House (staged in the Stephen Joseph's end-on McCarthy space) and Garden (downstairs in its trademark Round auditorium) are almost entirely simultaneous, so that as a character exits upstairs to take the dog for a walk, he appears on the other stage only a few seconds later in the corresponding scene. Secondly, this simultaneity occurs not just in dramatic time, but in real time: the plays are staged together, so that – for instance – immediately upon his exit in the McCarthy, that dog-walking actor has to hot-foot it down to the Round theatre to make his entrance there, shouting, "Come on, boy!"
It is a beautifully devilish idea, but one that depends for complete appreciation on extrinsic audience knowledge and on a commitment to see both plays (although not necessarily in the order which the title suggests, and perhaps even better vice versa); moreover, since the McCarthy can currently accommodate fewer than two-thirds as many theatre-goers as the Round, a lot of people are going to miss out on the full joke. The need to achieve complete synchronisation in staging also means that scenes in House are bracketed by two minutes or more of jaunty music as the stage sits in darkness; it is a small wonder that this cripples the comic pace as little as it does.
And what of the plays themselves? Oh, they are of course both great fun and deceptively weighty in terms of emotional content, although House carries rather more substance in this department (to the extent of one character, the disillusioned patrician wife Trish as played by Eileen Battye, being a smidgen overwritten in later scenes). As Garden deals more with characters of broad types – the Mummerset servants, the Essex-y tracksuited couple of whom the husband is casually heartless in his obsession with organising things – it feels more like mid-to-late-'70s Ayckbourn, whereas the more articulate soul-baring in House bears a greater resemblance to his more recent work. As the action unfolds through a single day of stage-time, interweaving plotlines include four marriages (one of them common-law) on the rocks, the organisational hell of a storm-battered garden fête, an unpredictable, alcoholic French film actress with no English, backroom political shenanigans and even Humbertish cradle-snatching and nymphet coquetry – all handled with delicacy and intelligence. Ayckbourn also enjoys scattering discreet nods to his earlier plays such as Just Between Ourselves and Intimate Exchanges; this even permeates the casting, with Sabine Azema having previously starred in the film adaptations of the latter group of plays, Smoking and No Smoking, before appearing here as boozy loose cannon Lucille Cadeau (whose Gallic outpourings Mr A dares to leave almost entirely untranslated). Robert Blythe rumbles nicely as Trish's serial-adulterer husband Teddy, Janie Dee is a delight in Garden as his jilted mistress Joanna, self-dramatising to the point (literally) of insanity, and as Teddy and Trish's daughter Sally, young Charlie Hayes does magnificent justice to one of the finest non-sociopath teenage parts to have been written in recent years.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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