It’s as comforting as a cup of cocoa, but this comedy-drama by Alan Ayckbourn, prolific playwright and seasoned chronicler of middle-class angst, is served up at a moment when we could all use a shot of something stronger. You can’t fault the can-do resourcefulness of the endeavour. This summer was supposed to see the premiere of another work entirely, Truth Will Out, about a computer hacker, now put on hold; instead, the title of 84th Ayckbourn play goes to this audio piece, knocked up and recorded at Ayckbourn’s home during the Coronavirus lockdown, with the entire cast of eight characters, ranging in age from 18 to 71, portrayed by the writer himself and his actor wife, Heather Stoney.
Mixed by Paul Stear, it’s impressively polished, and although delivery by just a pair of voices can occasionally cause confusion to the listener – despite the deployment of some broad accents and vocal mannerisms – the performances from both the author and Stoney are slick and lively. The problem is, it’s all a little too predictable, too cosy, and though there are some neatly observed family politics and some episodes of polite savagery, it lacks both the sting and the inventiveness of Ayckbourn at his best.
Still, it is what it is, and for fans of the playwright it will doubtless prove a diverting curiosity at least. And if the flavour, milieu and dialogue all sound rather quaint, Ayckbourn retains his sharp-eyed talent for conjuring a certain type of stymied, unremarkable, quietly miserable life – the discreet discomforts of a comfortable bourgeois existence.
So, here we are in familiar territory. Middle-aged couple Sam and Milly, outwardly thriving (prosperous careers as an architect and a lawyer respectively, children at university) are due to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. They arrange a family gathering at a bistro, where Sam’s insufferably snobbish mother Ella, bluff father Ben, flaky sister Martha, Martha’s taciturn teenage son Raz and her obliging new Yorkshire boyfriend Craig are all assembled. Only Raz – who swiftly strikes up a flirtation by text with a trainee restaurant manager – is destined to have a good evening; the festive toast turns to incredulous recrimination when Milly and Sam announce that they plan to divorce. Their split sets off a domino effect among their relatives, who begin to question what their own relationships are really worth.
Ayckbourn has given all the best lines to Stoney – mostly in the guise of the ghastly Ella. She is a caricature Gorgon, but makes by far the strongest impression. We can picture her, her pursed lips carefully made-up and opening only to scold or disparage under cover of courtesy and conversation. She sneers at Sam’s new ambition to become a painter and move to Italy for inspiration and the light, “we’ve got light here. What’s wrong with good old English light?” She despises other women and dismisses feminism as “strident and hysterical”; she calls her own daughter “plain, undemonstrative”, and carps of Martha’s first husband, who committed suicide, that he was, “like so many men in the arts, a little ‘light on his feet’, if you know what I mean… just the sort who would throw himself off a bridge.”
We get only a hint of Ella’s hurt and panic when Ben – a retired barrister who admits his years at the bar corroded his faith in humanity, and his ability to enjoy other people’s company – suggests that they, too, might be better apart. It’s a shame there’s not more behind the sitcomish exchanges. Likewise, when a gin-fuelled row erupts between Ella and Martha, and home truths about Martha and Sam’s childhood emerge, the stakes never feel quite high enough. And in the end, it all fizzles out. But there is a symmetry to the drama, and a shrewdness about the sacrifices and co-dependencies of long-term monogamy that keep the ear attuned. Like dominoes, it passes the time pleasantly enough; an inconsequential parlour game.
Streamed online by Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough at www.sjt.uk.com; available to 25 June