by Alan Ayckbourn
Directed by Lindsay Posner
Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre, Southwark, London
Sunday 24th May 2015, 3.30 pm
David Bamber as Julian Goodman, Reece’s business partner, aged 45 and 65
Lucy Briggs-Owen as Jessica, Reece’s first wife aged 25 and 45
Matthew Cottle as Harold Palmer, hotel security officer, aged 35 & 55
Robert Portal as Reece, aged 70 and 30.
Imogen Stubbs as Ruella, Reece’s second wife aged 45
Rachel Tucker as Poopay aka Phoebe, a prostitute
The Menier Chocolate Factory is the basement of a converted factory in Southwark Street, not far from The Globe. It’s one of those special small London theatres like the Donmar Warehouse, the Young Vic and the Almeida. But perhaps the most secret of the three. We drove up to London and back solely on the basis of the cast for this play. It’s a tiny theatre but with a full width stage and low ceiling, so it feels really wide.
I don’t much like Ayckbourn, my companion loathes his plays, but this is the most enjoyable one we’ve seen. It’s a classic banging doors farce with the delicious twist of time travel. And it has thriller elements.The surprise for us was that we had seen it before. It took until the interval to remember we’d seen the play before, but it shows how brilliant this production was because the previous one had confirmed our anti-Ayckbourn stance, while this production had us saying “What a fantastic play!”
It takes place in a hotel with interconnecting doors between suites. I relate to that. I once tried what I thought was a wardrobe door in an Athens hotel and walked into the next room where a couple were playing cards in their underwear. I don’t think it was strip poker, just a hot day.
It begins in the future when Poopay, a dominatrix sex consultant (i.e. prostitute) arrives at the Regal Hotel, her services booked by the nasty Julian for his rich, ancient and dying business partner, Reece, who comes on complete with oxygen tubes. Once Julian has left the room, it turns out that the only service Reece wants is Poopay’s signature witnessing his confession. Julian murdered both of Reece’s former wives (with Reece’s approval) to assist their business dealings. The second wife, Ruella, was killed exactly 20 years ago today in this hotel. Julian tries to kill Poopay, but she escapes through the communicating door … and finds herself twenty years earlier in Ruella’s room. Ruella was the second wife.
Ruella (Imogen Stubbs) and Poopay (Rachel Tucker)
They work out the time gap (with the intervention of the officious hotel security man, Harold Palmer). Then Ruella goes through the door and goes back twenty years again to find the first wife, Jessica, on honeymoon with Reece. Ruella works out the time travel rules. You can’t go forward ahead of your own time.
Poopay has Reece’s confession with her, and the three women have to band together across time to prevent the murder of Ruella and warn Jessica that she will be murdered in seven years. It involves much back and forth. The women stay the same ages, but we meet Julian and Harold at twenty year intervals, while Reece has to do a forty year leap (and be seventy in two alternative realities). This adds greatly to the fun.
The play takes place (in this version) in 2020, then 2000, then 1980. Originally, it was 2014, 1994, 1974. So Ayckbourn took “now” (it was premiered in 1994) and went forward and back twenty years. This time they’ve gone for just five years forward, with the “Ruella” time frame being past rather than “now.” I’m not sure why except 1980, 2000, 2020 are nice round numbers. To a degree that weakened the asides about a dystopian future London. It opens with Julian listening to gunfire coming from outside. Until they discussed the gunfire right at the end again, we’d both thought it was supposed to be a firework display at the London Eye. Maybe that’s living in Poole where we hear Poole’s weekly fireworks one night at ten, and Bournemouth’s weekly fireworks a different night at ten. I don’t think that interfered a jot, and if you took out two or three lines in the last scene, you could set the 2020 time frame in 2015 as “now” and the play would still work. One of the hinges which make the play work is that beige and cream hotel suites with cream sofas and vaguely Georgian-style furniture persist through the ages. That sort of suite looked the same in 1970, 1990 and 2010 and doubtless will look the same in 2030. It’s a style many people aspire to. Personally, I’d hate to live in what looks like the duller sort of four star hotel.
At least we were clearer than the couple we heard in the interval. He wanted to know why six actors were listed in the programme when there were seven on stage. She explained that Robert Portal was playing both the 70 year old Reece and the 30 year old Reece. He was astonished.
David Bamber as Julian, Rachel Tucker as Poopay
I’ll take issue with Ayckbourn’s programme interview. He rightly points out that the play predates the film Sliding Doors. Then he talks about being inspired by sci-fi in his cinema frequenting days in the early 1950s. Then reviews mention J.B. Priestley’s time slip plays. Bollocks. He can rely on the audience knowing the “rules” of time travel because of the Back to The Future trilogy of the mid-1980s. That is surely the inspiration. I’ve written ELT short stories to the same alleged rules. Tell me the 50s sci-fi film from that basis? We both thought that Julian’s relation to time frames (no plot spoilers) was confused, but the cast has a line about being confused about that too. Julian, as the baddie, was so well-done by David Bamber. He is not a large man, but he was genuinely chilling and frightening. A credible baddie this evil is really hard to make frightening in the middle of a farce, but he did it.
These are three strong contrasting women. Poopay (Rachel Tucker) a tart-with-a-heart is the powerful central part. Ruella (Imogen Stubbs) is a determined Englishwoman of the no-nonsense sort who ran Empires. Jessica, the first wife, is a ditzy Sloane, deliciously portrayed by Lucy Briggs-Owen, very much in the style of her Sloane Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the RSC. Up this close her facial reactions were laugh out loud funny at Lucille Ball levels.
My companion will take issue with Ayckbourn’s comment (also in the programme) that he specializes in writing strong parts for women. Absolutely not! she says. All were brilliant interpretations and enormously funny, but all are also stereotypes. That’s what you expect in a farce, but while I’d have been proud of writing such funny, tightly-scripted stuff, I wouldn’t say it was insightful writing about “women.” I always find Ayckbourn stereotypical, and this may be why I loved this sci-fi farce, where stereotypical is appropriate but dislike anything which sets out to be “meaningful.” I can see why actors like him. I had a conversation with a director and actor who said Ayckbourn directs through the script and no one does so better. In this play he also created six parts where every actor shines, and no one has a “minor role.”
It really was a privilege to see these six actors in such an intimate theatre.
Links to reviews on this site:
Matthew Cottle was in Ayckbourn’s Neighbourhood Watch, but for us, more importantly in the My Oxford English video series which we scripted.
Robert Portal was in A Little Hotel On The Side at Bath Theatre Royal (another farce directed by Lindsay Posner). We also saw him in Private Lives at Bath and The Deep Blue Sea before I started this blog.
Imogen Stubbs was in The Hypochondriac in Bath. Also directed by Lindsay Posner.