By Alan Ayckbourn
Harold Pinter Theatre, London SW1Y 4DN, booking through January 5, 2013
All round comedy mega-star Rob Brydon makes an exceptional West End acting debut in this long overdue revival of one of Ayckbourn’s best plays, perfectly cast as Dafydd, a cocky, self-absorbed, am-dram director in small town Wales.
Nigel Harman, also perfectly cast as the dashing cuckoo-in-the-nest, Guy, has journeyed from the hit soap EastEnders to an Olivier Award winning turn in Shrek: The Musical, and is here the hapless centre around which the action revolves. Accused by all of being calculating, he is nothing of the sort. The star wattage is further enhanced by Ashley Jensen, from TV’s Extras and Ugly Betty, who brings real warmth and deft comic timing to the part of Hannah, Dafydd’s taken-for-granted “swiss army knife” wife.
It is curious that the piece hasn’t been revived in the West End since its huge 1985 success at the National Theatre, as it appears as fresh as ever. The subject matter of the trials of a small town amateur musical society is fertile ground – Ayckbourn relishes the opportunity to present this world: the seemingly endless rehearsals, the awful make-do casting and the petty jealousies and romances, which inevitably emerge and which often fuel more drama off-stage than on.
Here the Pendon Amateur Light Operatic Society’s production of The Beggar’s Opera is going off the rails, as per usual. The arrival of a handsome but shy widower, Guy, provides a catalyst for a torrent of sexual and professional jealousies. Harman, in a range of hideous knitwear and badly fitting trousers, expertly calibrates the development of Guy from gauche new kid on the block to the centre of attention. He keeps being promoted to more senior parts as various cast members fall away. Ayckbourn expertly maps the course of his relations with fellow cast members, his growing friendship with the director, his affairs with both Dafydd’s wife and Fay (the great Daisy Beaumont), the sexually voracious blonde-bombshell, who entraps him into the joys of swinging when he thinks he’s just been invited for dinner.
Ayckbourn’s gift for creating unique comic set ups is also sublime and here he poignantly stages Guy’s tortuous break up scene with Hannah as they are both being put through their paces by Dafydd during a technical rehearsal. The bumbling Dafydd blunders on, rushing about the theatre completely oblivious to the real drama involving his wife, which is happening in front of him, as he tries to focus the lights, all the time berating a hapless operator.
Brydon’s Dafydd is wonderfully beige in his cardigans, resembling a pompous woodwork teacher. Revelling in his Welsh identity, he offers tutorials on how to pronounce his name. Brydon never sinks into caricature however, and is touching in the scenes when he does let his guard down. He and the rest of his cast are using am-dram as a chance to escape the disappointments and shortcomings of their so called real lives.
Robert Jones’ designs re-create the 1980s domestically and sartorially in all its hideousness, and he beautifully differentiates what the artist Grayson Perry so aptly called (on his tapestries of life in Britain) “The Vanity of Small Differences”.
Trevor Nunn’s direction needs tighter pacing quite often but this is an old fashioned West End showcase for stars and it delivers on that.