After the high tech, immersive thrill ride end to 2022 which was The War Of The Worlds what better and more sedate way to begin a new reviewing year than an audio play experienced sitting in your own armchair? And with the news that his 88th and 89th plays will premiere this year it’s doubly fortunate when the play in question is by the prolific Alan Ayckbourn. It’s perhaps odd that fewer than 20 of his plays have been re-created on radio even though he spent five years of his very early career as a BBC radio producer. One of his biggest ever successes, 1975’s Bedroom Farce, has only just made the transition in an entertaining production from Jarvis and Ayres which premiered in two parts across New Year’s Eve/Day. It is now available via BBC Sounds.
The Jarvis referred to above is Martin Jarvis who has a good deal of previous with Ayckbourn’s works – especially in audio form. Here he directs and also plays Ernest, one half of the four couples who populate the play. His real life wife Rosalind Ayres plays Ernest’s better half, Delia. The couple spend time getting ready for an anniversary dinner which proves to be a total let down and end up eating pilchards on toast in bed. Meanwhile their son Trevor (Stephen Mangan) and his partner Susannah (Susannah Fielding) are busy wrecking the housewarming of the relatively uncomplicated Malcolm (George Blagden) and Kate (Laura Pitt-Pulford). Completing the octet are bedridden with a bad back Nick (Edward Bennett) and ex-love interest of Trevor, Jan (Lisa Dillon).
Originally premiered at the National Theatre, no less, scenes cut across the three bedrooms which form the locations in almost filmic style. It is perhaps a pity that this visual dimension is lost as the discussion which is going on in one setting sometimes provides commentary on what is silently happening elsewhere; naturally in audio form this dimension is lost. What is gained, however, is a concentration on the dialogue which reveals that the play is about far more than the frothy title would suggest. Ayckbourn shows us a world of disquiet in marriage as an institution.
The older couple have settled into a cosy but rather lifeless familiarity where routine is all. Nick and Jan rub along reasonably well though they both make it clear that they have settled for a kind of second best partnership and they often have little patience with each other. Malcolm and Kate are still somewhat in playful honeymoon mode but will this be enough to sustain their relationship? Doubts creep in (especially in Kate’s case) and Malcolm’s botched attempts at DIY seem to be a harbinger of doom to come.
Acting as a catalyst which induces a crisis in all three cases are Trevor and Susannah. Either as a sparring pair or individually they systematically ruin the night for the other three couples and leave them questioning where they are going and why. They are Ayckbourn archetypes (see also Norman in The Norman Conquests and the golden couple in Joking Apart, for instance); people who, largely unwittingly, blunder into and disrupt the lives of people they know. Trevor and Susannah are, basically, selfish egomaniacs with zero understanding or concern for the havoc they cause; it’s all about them.
Mangan (who has also played Norman) perfectly captures the character’s rather lugubrious air, his self deception in the way he thinks others feel about him and his ability to wreck something/anything just by being near it. Meanwhile Fielding clearly portrays a woman on the edge; she’s the sort who would sit in a pub and shred beer mats while telling her woes to anyone who would listen. It’s telling that we never actually encounter them in their bedroom which would undoubtedly be a tip and heavily feature crystals and spinning dream catchers.
Despite these two being central they are not necessarily to be seen as the main characters. This is definitely an ensemble piece and the other six players are equally adept at holding the attention. None more so than Jarvis and Ayres – who, let’s face it, have all the best lines. is also very good as the self pitying Nick. I could have done with Blagden’s Malcolm being more outraged about the supposed criticisms from Kate – I well remember Derek Newark bringing the house down with his reactions nearly fifty years ago – but this is a minor caveat.
As I implied earlier the real shame is that the visual element is lost particularly when Nick is trying to retrieve his book from the floor, the big Trevor/Susannah bust up and the various telephone calls in the second act. And the big climax with Malcolm’s handiwork collapsing is entirely visual and almost goes for nothing here. There is a recording of the original National Theatre production preserved for posterity except that it’s never shown and is, currently, not available anywhere. Now that we have NT At Home how about it? Alternatively, perhaps BBC4 or even Talking Pictures TV could look into getting hold of it. Better still – do what I did a few years ago and direct your own version!