Streaming until 25 June 2020
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Alan Ayckbourn has taken a play ‘off the back burner’ for audio streaming by the Stephen Joseph Theatre, where he was artistic director for many years. It has all of the hallmarks of classic Ayckbourn – razor-sharp observation, subtle skewering of preconceptions, and exploration of murky hidden depths.
It has to be stressed that this is not in any sense a streamed theatrical performance (unsurprisingly, given Ayckbourn’s stated antipathy towards the format). Instead, this is quite clearly presented as a radio play, with all that entails.
In terms of presentation, the story of middle-aged couple Sam and Milly’s announcement at their silver wedding dinner that they are to split up, is pretty much faultless. Ayckbourn (returning to acting after nearly 60 years) and his other half Heather Stoney play all of the parts of the extended family affected by the surprise announcement between them, ranging from a couple in their 70s to another in their teens.
If the youngest characters are the least convincing, this is only to be expected, and for someone returning to acting after so long, Ayckbourn’s portrayal of taciturn teenager Raz is extremely impressive.
It is nearly as many years since Ayckbourn worked as a radio producer, but he clearly has not forgotten about that either. Technically, the whole thing is top-notch; the different characters’ voices are cleverly differentiated and there is some elegant Foley work. Clearly this is a labour of love for the performers and Paul Stear, who is credited with ‘final mix’.
The fact that this was a play apparently ‘dusted off’ by Ayckbourn might lead to suspicions that it would prove to be both a minor work and a dated one. While it may not be his finest work, it is not bad either and appears resolutely contemporary.
Left: Heather Stoney and Alan Ayckbourn in Two for the Seesaw 1964 Pic: Scarborough Theatre Trust
Right: Alan Ayckbourn and Heather Stoney. Pic: Tony Bartholomew
Indeed, anyone coming to this fresh might very well consider it to be a post-Brexit play, with many of the attitudes on display. The apparently central couple of Sam and Milly are merely bit-part players in the story they create, with the spotlight then falling on the other members of the family – notably Sam’s parents Ben and Ella, with their distrust of ‘non-English’ habits like couples splitting up rather than just grinning and bearing it.
What is being portrayed here, however, is the milieu that Ayckbourn has explored for so long. Ella, in particular, is a compellingly monstrous creation, brilliantly voiced by Stoney. It would be reductive to see her as a Little Englander Brexiteer, except in terms of the social pressures that created such feelings.
Worn down by everything from the patriarchy to recalcitrant garage doors (a symbol recurring from Just Between Ourselves, the play Ayckbourn was due to revive this summer), she doesn’t just hate foreigners, she seems to hate almost everything and everyone, in particular those closest to her. Her clinging to an imagined past era and tone-deaf refusal to listen to anyone else’s concerns are sadly topical.
Yet this vision of familial iciness is not the basis for a misery-fest; instead, it probably counts as one of Ayckbourn’s sunnier works. The jokes (engraving S&M on a gift because M&S is ‘open to misinterpretation’) are frothy, and a couple of the characters provide definite hints of redemption.
If there are hints of both sit-com and radio soap opera, this is not a bad thing. Indeed, considering the format – including being presented as two discrete acts – it is a positive advantage. Well worth listening – and be sure to give the theatre a few quid afterwards.
Running times: Act One: 57 minutes; Act Two: 47 minutes
A Steven Joseph Theatre, Scarborough production
Streaming from Monday 25 May – Thursday 25 June 2020
Free to listen, but there is a button on the web page for donations.