Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present’ and ‘Season’s Greetings’ which are at the New Vic in Newcastle-under-Lyme until Saturday 26th October.
Alan Ayckbourn’s theatre company has travelled down from Scarborough to Stoke with not one, but two comedies about disastrous family celebrations.
This season’s new play, ‘Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present’ is pretty much a sex comedy about not having sex. For decades Mr Ayckbourn has been threatening to write a backwards farce; one that starts in the present day and then, scene by scene, skips back through time to show us how such a farcical situation could possibly have arisen. Now it’s here – and it’s been well worth the wait.
Adrian is the sort of perfectly reasonable man who appears at the heart of many of Ayckbourn’s plays; a mild man caught up in a compounded maelstrom of misunderstanding. In the first of four scenes set on family member’s birthdays, he brings a nice new girl-friend, Grace, home to meet his parents. But he makes the mistake of leaving the poor lass in the company of his father, who is determined to divulge his suspicions about his son’s insatiable sexual demands.
How did poor Adrian (played very caringly by Jamie Baughan) get such a reputation? Let’s go back and see.
The play is wonderfully constructed in reverse, with hints of past misdemeanours in the first scene subsequently acted out on stage.
15 years ago, Adrian was married to frosty Faith who reckons her marriage ended on her wedding night when Adrian refused to touch her where she liked her ex-husband to touch her. But, with Adrian’s patience, conciliation is in the air … till his parents burst in from the disco.
25 years ago, on Adrian’s own birthday, his wayward uncle sends a vodka-swigging call girl called Charity to his flat to give him a good time … before his parents crash in once again. And when he’s a student, staying upstairs to avoid his sister Sonia’s birthday – in a scene so reminiscent of our universal teenage inadequacies – she sends her virginal friend Hope up to his bedroom hoping they might break each other’s ducks.
Sonia is a classic Ayckbourn character who drives the plot without ever being seen on stage. And he employs another of his favourite devices by casting the same actress as all four women in Adrian’s life. And so it is, that Naomi Peterson steels the show; playing a church mouse in a pink cardie; a deeply dissatisfied wife in a steely evening number; a predatory prostitute wearing very little at all; and an inadequate adolescent with no fashion sense whatsoever.
Miss Peterson is fabulous in all four deeply diverse roles. Her irritatingly nervous laugh, as the repressed church-goer, win laughs on its own. But she shines brightest as the drunken escort girl, playing animal snap and having to do the animal noises when she loses. Her ‘dairy cow’ is very brave indeed.
The veteran Ayckbourn actor Russell Dixon is a master storyteller and his wicked streak stirs things up disgracefully as Adrian’s father Micky, celebrating his 80th birthday, and desperate to spill the beans. He spends practically the whole first act in his armchair, laying down one-liners about what it is like to be his age, and declaring that he’s perfectly dry ‘down below’. Ayckbourn writes him as a man who has nothing to prove, nothing to lose, and no reason to be polite anymore. It’s a beautifully observed character which can surely only be created by a man who is now 80 himself.
Jemma Churchill is his counterfoil; his wife Meg, who still has pride and tries to steer the conversation into the safety of wallpaper design. Unless she’s drunk at her own birthday party, of course.
This is classic Ayckbourn; having fun at everyone else’s expense and defining a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘cupboard love’. The recurring motif of characters trying to communicate through closed windows is well worth watching out for.
His new play is in repertoire with one he wrote in 1980.
‘Season’s Greetings’ completely dismantles Christmas by reminding us of the kind of festivities we’d all like to forget – when mutually manipulating people, with little love for each other, are holed up together for the duration. It is one of his deservedly most oft-produced plays; the excruciatingly centrepiece of which is sad Uncle Bernard’s puppet play … which no-one wants to watch.
Bernard is played open-heartedly by Leigh Symonds who must be the least likely looking actor in the world. His perfectly timed portrayal of hopelessness, and his desperate repetition of his puppet’s inane lines, leaves his audience utterly helpless with laughter. Everything you hate about Christmas is here. And it’s an absolute joy to watch. No wonder it is performed with such regularity.