In the programme Professor David Rudd asks the question, “How could we find such a rogue not only sympathetic, but lovable, too?” I’m not sure that “lovable” is the right word for Alfie Elkins, who refers to “birds” as “it”, not “she”, and opines that an evening with just one woman is “only half the menu”, but the reasons why he is sympathetic (apart from David Ricardo-Pearce’s engaging performance) have to do with his candour and lack of hypocrisy and the fact that, slowly and painfully, he comes to realise that he hasn’t got it all sorted after all.
Bill Naughton’s play, first staged in 1963, cleverly allows Alfie to be the narrator of his own story, yet preserves a sort of ironic distance from him. A series of episodes, mostly centred on women whom he treats shabbily, expose the weakness of his philosophy of life that a man must avoid involvement. Shreds of goodness appear in Alfie, but he progresses from the harmlessly irresponsible to the shocking (even to him). Even a spell in a sanatorium fails to curb his selfish confidence, with his toe-curlingly inappropriate advice to a devotedly married patient on how to sort his life out.
David Thacker’s production, already seen at the Octagon, Bolton, and the New Vic, Stoke, is perfectly adapted to the intimacy of in-the-round performance. Initially there is a bare stage and actors bring on simplified furniture, sometimes overlapping with the stage action, giving a sense of improvisation. As Alfie David Ricardo-Pearce’s confiding manner establishes remarkable rapport with the audience. His version of the character is based as much on puzzlement as on hedonism: he doesn’t understand people, so he just makes sure the one he does know is all right, except that increasingly he doesn’t even know himself. Delivered with a light touch, this is a finely judged performance. With seven actors dividing up 16 parts most effectively, it’s difficult to single out anyone in a first-class ensemble, but Barbara Hockaday excels in a very truthful performance as Gilda, the modest realist, Vicky Binns’ Northern innocent is equally touching and John Branwell oozes quiet menace as a shady medical man.