Alan Ayckbourn’s trademark eye for domestic politics is open wide in this tea party farce.
When Colin’s fiancée dies suddenly, his friends gather in their suburban home to support him through his bereavement. Even before Colin arrives at the house, the air of dutiful togetherness is soiled by an underlying whiff of unattended rifts, lasting annoyances, and bitter divisions. When Colin finally turns up, however, Colin is apparently well on his way to recovery and it becomes flagrantly clear that it is not him but his friends – with their dreary lives and flagging marriages – who need consoling. Colin’s conclusion that “I’m glad I came by here today. I don't know how you've all got by without me” summarises the situation brilliantly in this light comedy observation of adult life.
The TV soap credentials of the cast are well-suited to this caricature of the domestic. Handling the dynamics of each relationship with engaging bravado, veering nervously between polite niceties and uncontrollable fits of incredulous, the actors lead us through a minefield of tea party faux-pas, detonating each precarious conversation along the way.
As more and more of the friends arrive (some more reluctantly than others), the small cast manage to make the unchanging stage feel very claustrophobic indeed. As a conjoining series of rooms in the suburban home, the set provides a superb backdrop within which the inhabitants appear more and more uncomfortable. Colin Richmond’s 1970s period design follows the production’s nudge towards the caricatural while remaining detailed enough to ground the play in a highly recognisable reality.
Kerry Peers excels as feisty Diana, whose dutiful supporting of Colin battles with a rage at her cheating husband. Her grin, framed by a generous smattering of red lipstick, just about manages to stay fixed as she stomps with melodramatic anxiety between the refuge of her kitchen and the circus of the lounge. As perhaps the sanest of all present, when Diana matter-of-factly empties a jug of cream over her husband’s head it is clear that there is no hope whatsoever for this fast-unravelling reunion.
But this is just one of the play’s many great slapstick moments. Dominic Gately as John is a nervous wreck whose fear of death makes him a far from suitable consoler of the bereaved. Bouncing madly from chair to chair, and clinging madly to the walls when Colin speaks of his recent loss, John provides the play with an often hilarious visual gauge of the room’s rising tension.
Samantha Giles’ ditsy but well-meaning Marge and Poppy Tierney’s evidently bored Evelyn are the polar opposites of one another, and the minutes during which they are chained together in awkward (and significantly one-way) conversation provide director Nikolai Foster with some cracking one-liners to work with. In fact, under his direction, the comedy truly is an all-cast effort of excellently-time exchanges. David Crellin as the inconceivably laid back Colin – humorously naive to his friends’ warring personalities – is the perfect antidote to Paul, played with a good level of detestability by Steven Pinder.
If the production lacks anything it is the ability to evoke our sympathy at the moment when the friends move from mourning Colin’s loss to their own loss of hope for a happier life, something which only the downtrodden but upbeat Diana manages to do. But the excellently overblown comedy performances are what really make this entertaining, well-observed caricature of long-term friendships – some of whom are less welcome than others.