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‘Streaks of compassionate melancholy under the sparkles of hilarity’: BIRTHDAYS PAST, BIRTHDAYS PRESENT – Scarborough ★★★★★

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Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough – until 5 October 2019

Not everything would send me via divers and standing-room trains from Stratford to Scarborough. But this is Alan Ayckbourn’s 83rd play, marking his 80th birthday and 60th anniversary as a playwright. And though it may (should!) last and travel like his other best ones, I needed to see it on his home turf: the round SJT, the  Circus-Maximus where for decades he has thrown Middle England into battle with the wild beats of its nature.

On a wet Friday a sudden rainbow met me as I stumbled from the station. Old Sir-Alan has earned it again with this: a play very English, very Yorkshire, streaks of compassionate melancholy under the sparkle of sparkles of hilarity as once again he shakes his head, not unaffectionately, at the puzzle of men and women.

He himself directs: it’s a four-hander family tale told backwards through time (like Betrayal, or Merrily We Roll Along). First meet Mickey, a graceless grump marking 80 with a fine dry wit, tended by Meg with her tea-tray. The son Adrian and his latest girlfriend Grace are coming to birthday tea.

Deft as ever, Ayckbourn reveals the family’s shape: Adrian is the slowcoach, his siblings higher-flying and often abroad; he had a failed marriage to a divorcee with children, and always in the background was once Uncle Hal, the black sheep. This constantly funny opener is enlivened by Mickey’s determination to warn the mousy, churchy Grace that his son is famously sexually voracious, what women of a past age hushedly called a “satyr” (“Once he gets you into bed, you do well to brace yourself!”). This reputation feels blinkingly unlikely as the great smiling lunk himself shambles in, all goodwill and hope for the 42-year-old he met at a church social. What can Mickey mean? Is he really a sexual Superman? We shall learn.

For as the stagehands elegantly reposition and unfold the furnishings in the arena (Kevin Jenkins’ ingenious design is part of the pleasure)  the next birthday, 15 years earlier, is his wife’s 60th, when she has become a bottle-blonde in mumsily pink glamour, brawling over the offstage buffet.

While Adrian and his still-married  wife with touching awkwardness reveal how far from a satyr he is. Aha: we are beginning to understand that actually, this is a play about the hardness of being a shy good man in a world of baffling women. Jamie Baughan’s performance is immaculate in its underachieving sweetness, and later he’ll break your heart even more. For it is his lonely 30th birthday next, and another clue to Mickey’s legend;  finally it is his brash elder sister’s 18th, setting him at 17 on his life’s trail of kindly, modest humiliation.

Baughan holds the play’s real heart,  and Russell Dixon and Jemma Churchill neatly grow younger over five decades as the parents. But the glorious set-pieces come  from the astonishing Naomi Petersen as four of the women in Adrian’s life:  thwartedly churchy Grace,  a disastrously depressed and self-absorbed wife Faith, a shy schoolgirl of long ago. And,  most gloriously of all,  a mouthy prostitute donated, on Adrian’s birthday  by his Uncle Hal .   For reasons not fit to disclose before you hurry up there with a ticket,  a major highspot is her hen impression – chicken-in-a-basque if you like.

Yet always underneath it beats Ayckbourn’s sorrowful, understanding heart, showing us that comedy is just tragedy on its way to happening.   Happy Birthday, Sir Alan!

box office sjt.uk.com    to 5 October

rating  Five

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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on RssLibby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

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