In Retro-respect: Alan Ayckbourn's Bedroom Farce at The Duke of York's
It's the 70s; Nick and Kate are throw a house-warming party. Nick's DIY ineptitude means shelves fall down and the walls are half-papered but nothing bothers this loved-up pair who run round hiding shoes for a laugh. Nick's slightly cross that Kate has invited Susannah and Trevor, whose marital spats are routinely played out in public. It's a shame that Jan, Trevor's ex, will be there too, on her own because husband Malcolm is in bed with a bad back. Meantime Trevor's elderly parents go out to celebrate their anniversary then settle down for a bedtime snack. Mayhem ensues and nobody gets much sleep.
I wonder what it must be like for people who didn't know the 70s to watch this play. True, people still struggle with flat-pack furniture, one target of Ayckbourn's soft-centred satire, and the English middle-class fear of rows is just as strong, but those coats-piled-on-bed parties are a distant memory. These days guests don't bother with coats, or leave them in the car.
As with most of Ayckbourn, the joy is in the play's inventive use of the stage and witty dialogue as well as the dovetailing of the three-stranded plot. When I first saw this in the 70s it seemed daring to set the action entirely in three contrasting bedrooms. Even now I seem to remember a revolving stage for the first London production. At the Duke of York's it's all done with lights.
With Peter Hall directing, this entertaining tranfer from Kingston Rose Theatre was slick but not quite settled in on the night I attended. The younger couples seem a tad dated, the silly newly-weds like the Catherine Tate couple who laugh like drains when they get out of the lift at the wrong floor. Kate (Finty Williams) is bouncy and Nick (Tony Gardener) not quite hapless enough.Slipped-disc Malcolm (Daniel Betts) does a great slow-motion fall out of bed when he drops his book, and Jan (Sara Crowe) deftly portrays the wife whose patience is wearing thin.
My favourites, then as now, are parents Delia (Jenny Seagrove) and Ernest (David Horovitch) the actors as comfortable on stage as they are with their stereotype middle class marriage, mildly amused that eating pilchards in bed makes it 'smell like a fishing boat.'
It's not one of Ayckbourn's funniest plays, having the hall-mark surface frivolity without the dark undertones of later works, such as 'Woman in Mind' seen in the West End last year. It still slips down like a smooth Amontillado. I imagine it would chime more with a posh suburban audience than the West End one, but there's still a lot to like. Especially if you remember the 70s.