It’s well known that family celebrations often bring out the worst in people. Alan Ayckbourn’s 1992 play, now given a well deserved and extremely well staged new production by Brigid Larmour, fractures the surface bonhomie to blistering effect. We laugh a lot. We cringe even more.
There are 20 scenes, all set in one restaurant with time shifting either side of Laura’s birthday dinner. Present are her husband Gerry, their sons Glyn and Adam, Glyn’s wife Stephanie and Adam’s latest girl-friend Maureen. Calvinu, the restaurant proprietor, and his staff come in and out. Designer Ruari Murchison sets his stage on two levels. Above is the room where the birthday meal slithers into fatal chaos. Below we see two other, quite separate eating areas.
Just as the action is jagged – and the characters’ relationships even more so – so the checked red and white floor cloths suggest that some sort of deadly game of snakes and ladders is unfolding. Marion Bailey makes Laura into the mother-in-law we would all hope to avoid, as she drips venom onto her children’s choice of partners and wraps herself in a carapace of selfishness. Paul Bentall, as Gerry offers us a beautifully paced portrait of a businessman confronting failures on one level too many.
Gregory Gudgeon is Calvinu and all his staff – quick changes which present a fully fleshed gallery of recognisable types and at least one real person. Hairdresser Maureen, who at first thinks Adam might be worth a bit of effort, gives Jessica Dickens a succession of ever more fantastic hairdos as well as eagerly seized opportunities to make a dramatic mark. Craig Fletcher has the right degree of understated weakness as Adam, a dreamer but never a doer.
Glyn, on the other hand, is definitely a doer, albeit one who over-reaches. Chris Kelham catches the brashness of the man precisely and one wanted to cheer when Anna O’Grady’s blonde mouse Stephanie blooms into the stylish, self-possessed and self-aware brunette so long subdued by the family into which she’s married. But there’s a lot of plot, revelations and counter-recriminations before we reach that moment. Some we see coming. Some just slide out to catch us unawares.
As I said, snakes and ladders. Ayckbourn is a master manipulator of these.