NOTE: The following review dates from May 2004 and this production's original run at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. Cast changes may occur. Please check performance listings on the site or directly with the venue for the latest.
Charlie Conrad is a sports celebrity, squeaky clean and faithful to his trophy wife. Until, that is, he gets a little involuntarily into a legover situation with Mister Chortles, a clown employed for his son Harry's birthday party who’s actually a starstruck children's entertainer called Marsha.
Caught by wife Linzi, two small children and a shark-toothed TV journalist in (almost) flagrante, Marsha goes headless chicken and screams rape - not an Oleanna moment, but a meticulously constructed and brilliantly executed moment of high farce which drops the audience into the interval roaring hysterically, just like the Ayckbourn of two decades ago and more.
The fallout from this unfortunate incident involves Hugo de Prescourt, a celebrity spinner/lawyer who embarks as Max Clifford and morphs into George Carman (a superb creation by Stuart Fox, all hands-in-pockets urbanity, lobbing the apparently easy queries while examining the garden then turning and lunging like a swordsman with the killer question), to send the hapless Marsha (a fine performance of mouseyness way out of its depth from Sarah Moyle) gibbering from the scene.
There's probably enough proximity to a well-aired factual situation in all this to interest an ambitious libel lawyer: Charlie and Linzi even contrive to look like our principal celeb couple. But Stephen Beckett's Charlie, bemused beefcake with a dropped jaw, is a celebrity for his all-embracing uselessness: he flopped as a quiz contestant and collapsed at the first bend in his only competitive race. He can't even cope with the opening of a supermarket without colliding with and collapsing the goods on display. So naturally the media lionise him.
But celebrity, says Ayckbourn, is an essentially destructive virus. One scrap of dirt for the media which create it is sufficient for the same media to expose it for the phantasm it is. Charlie loses his contracts, his sponsorship, his wife and his home. And in the parallel sub-plot, the celebrity chat show hostess sent to interview him in his prime (Billie-Claire Wright deploying both the brashness and the brittleness of the insecure journo) loses her job when she’s exposed as the lesbian lover of a kids' TV presenter done for drugs. Meanwhile, Charlie’s neglected wife (Melanie Gutteridge), distractedly clamouring for attention with lurid pink hair at the off, tones it all down and effects a quiet role-reversal.
Drowning on Dry Land sees Ayckbourn back on his best form after, it has to be said, a fair number of below-par years. The laser accuracy of his social observation, in both diagnosis and prognosis, is simply stunning and transforms what, in other hands, would be mildly satirical and featherweight flummery into a tragi-comedy of stature.
As ever, Ayckbourn also demonstrates his masterliness as director of his own work, coaxing minutely detailed and telling moments from a very superior cast.
- Ian Watson