by Alan Ayckbourn
1st October 2011, matinee
Directed by Lucy Pitman-Wallace
Keith … David Hounslow
June … Cate Hamer
Alistair … Daniel Crowder
Emma … Sally Scott
Mrs Hatfield … Suzy Atchison
Vince … Richard Tinder
Fleur … Georgina White
Alan Ayckbourn had a major role in keeping theatre alive. Through the 70s, 80s, 90s, and 00s you could see one or two plays a year without ever travelling more than thirty miles, and they were always full theatres. If you lived in Scarborough you could watch much more. I must have seen a dozen out of the eighty or so. The titles don’t stick in my head. Not much about them does, except that I invariably came out vaguely dissatisfied and thinking, ‘Well, that passed the time.’
If you run the five star grading system used for record reviews, Ayckbourn never got above three out of five for me. The most interesting bit was stage management and set design. The cutaway neighbouring houses, or the two parallel plays in adjoining theatres from different viewpoints. That was House and Garden. Everyone in the garden got soaking wet. That leads to Way Upstream (#26. They have numbers like Beethoven symphonies) which was always the one I wanted to see because back in 1981 it made so many waves … er, made quite a splash … no, I’m not writing tabloid “punny” headlines. It’s set on a boat sitting in a 40,000 litre water tank. Its nude final scene got huge publicity.
What was so newsworthy about nudity in 1981? Oh, Calcutta (1969) and Hair (1968) date back further. In conventional Middle England theatre, the breakthrough Full Fontal Nudity (my caps) was held to be Abelard & Heloise, by Ronald Millar in 1970. We went to see it in 1971, and squeezed into the packed Palace Court Theatre in Bournemouth. In an act of cultural vandalism, that theatre, where Harold Pinter had been stage manager, was to be hijacked by an evangelical group who turned it into a church without planning permission. They sat out ten years of Bournemouth Council feebly telling them they couldn’t do that, then the limitations kicked in, and that was it. A great theatre gone.
The tale of the lusty monk had everyone waiting with bated breath for the promised nude scene. It came. Abelard hopped across the stage on one leg in very low lighting, carefully concealing the bit people had queued to see behind an upraised thigh. Heloise had her leg up too and her arms folded across her chest. There was a total absence of hairy bits on view as they hopped around. Our small party annoyed everyone by breaking into hysterical laughter during this tender moment.
The reason nudity made a splash in 1981 was that it was designed for the Ayckbourn audience. They like something a bit daring, an F-word here, a flash of breast there (but not very daring).
Mrs Hatfield pulls them to the bank. We were sitting about 18 inches from her bottom.
I’m forgetting … the Salisbury production. The boat was real, unlike the one on the poster. The entire theatre had been rearranged to accommodate the 40,000 litre tank complete with walkways. We were on what used to be the stage, in the front row, seats AA1 and AA2. Some of the action was two feet away. That was the side to be as they always got on and off the boat that side. They could have varied that for the benefit of those in the main hall. They didn’t.
It’s a stage management tour de force. 5 stars. Set design? 5 stars. Direction? 5 stars. Production? 5 stars. Actors? 5 stars. But the plays the thing, and there’s the rub. At the end of it all, you have an Ayckbourn play with stereotypical characters spouting (slightly daring) clichéd lines. It’s the best Ayckbourn I’ve seen, that’s true. So 3 stars again for the play. OK, push it to 3.25 stars.
L to R: Emma, June and Alistair on the boat
The boat was the real star. There was hilarious action involving it. The play starts out as a comedy; capitalist male managing director dragoons reluctant people onto a boating holiday. All good. Then the suspicious stranger, Vince, arrives. You know he’s bent on evil deeds and manipulation and conquest and will turn very nasty. You’re right. The play has to shift from comedy to dark drama. Does it succeed? Well, it’s highly predictable. The transition of the soft-centred male Alistair from feeble eunuch to someone prepared to fight Vince is unconvincing. He watches Emma, his wife, forced to walk the plank. Then he decides he has to fight the evil Vince. You NEED A TRANSITION. You need a building mood of rebellion. You don’t get it.
The fight itself got within 18 inches of us in the front row and was choreographed and directed brilliantly. The end nude bit was extremely fast (we couldn’t even tell if the actor was a cavalier or a roundhead) … they don’t dive in the tank, they get a blackout. This must always have been the case … you need at least nine feet of water to dive from a three foot height safely. But the tank has to be shallow enough to walk in. So it was just bums-on-seats appeal in the first place. Gratuitous.
L to R: June, Alistair, Emma (seated), Vince and Fleur
There’s a lot of obvious Political Significance (my caps again) in a play written two years into the Thatcher premiership. Keith is the old capitalist leader bumbling along, obsessed with his own status as skipper of the boat. Vince is the new fascist popular leader pushing him aside. Alistair is the weedy indecisive uncommitted Middle England male. Oh, that was only the males. OK, so Keith’s wife June is middle-aged, dissatisfied and randy. Alistair’s wife is 30-something and not. She has to cook. She’s scared of water. Vince names her cookie. Fleur, daughter of an Earl, who joins up to swell the ranks (and pants) of the baddy is a siren. Mrs Hatfield is the secretary. (BTW, her business tottering on heels on the river bank was three feet in front of us and brilliant). So, yes, the females are stereotypes too. perhaps even more so. And I introduced each by her role. Keith’s wife. Alistair’s wife. Keith’s secretary. Vince’s girlfriend.
Vince is the fascist sexist. We’re supposed to hate him. The “hero” is mild male, Alistair. Fine, we get that. But … Not that Ayckbourn’s rabidly sexist or anything, perish the thought, but it turns out that once June gets slapped about a bit by ex-commando Vince, tied up with ropes and indulges in a threesome with Vince and Fearn, the dissatisfied, irritable wife of Keith turns into a docile devotee of Vince. Fortunately all that takes place out of view in the boat cabin, but we hear it. The mindset of this is on a par with the Confessions of a Window-Cleaner film series.
The boat in place in the auditorium.
There’s a lot of wet. Ackybourn likes rain. Maybe he thinks that like his character, June, actors like getting slapped about a bit. I have to wonder if the pissing rain was worth the cost of overhead plumbing, or the discomfort of the actors. There’s stuff about how Salisbury spent months designing the setting for this four week run, and knocked holes in the theatre roof to accommodate the hoists to move the boat into the tank. They had to fill the stage with banked seating to reproduce Ayckbourn’s theatre in the round. The production must have eaten up a huge proportion of their resources. Much as I enjoyed the boat in the tank experience, much as my wallet liked paying £14 per ticket, rather than double in Bath, or triple in London (for an equally good production), I end up thinking the amount it cost was better spent over four other plays. Way Upstream is a triumph of stage management for Salisbury. Ayckbourn’s concept is a fabulous piece of theatre. Whether Ayckbourn’s lines and cardboard characters are worth it is another question. After all, they can’t tour it, which they could with a conventional expensive set design. It’s the month, and that’s it.
The end, as Alistair and Emma sail the boat, the Hadforth BOUNTY (geddit?) up The Orb (geddit?) to Armageddon Bridge (geddit?) is Deeply Meaningful in the way that an early Moody Blues LP is Deeply Meaningful. They burst through the impassable bridge, escaping the pursuing Vince and cronies (well, June and Fleur). They end up beyond it in an area of peace and tranquility. They strip off and jump in. Brilliant as the production and the acting was, a little voice said ‘This script is tosh, really. And underneath, unpleasantly sexist tosh, at that.’