En route for a stint in an upcoming `Brits Off Broadway season' it's hard to imagine what New Yorkers are going to make of Alan Ayckbourn's latest. Why are we Brits so uptight about sex?
As the UK's most commercially successful playwright, Ayckbourn, consistently the keenest of observers about our strange repressed ways, has often produced plays that seem to fit into that very peculiarly English form of `No Sex Please We're British' sex comedies (recently spotted on the billboard of a radical theatre in Krakow!). Underneath however, something nasty is stirring in the woodshed.
Private Fears in Public Places is no exception. Talking in the programme (for this 50th anniversary Stephen Joseph Theatre Company production) of his original love of cinema, Ayckbourn takes six fairly nondescript individuals – an estate agent, his sister and his female office colleague, an elderly hotel bar-tender and a squabbling, upper middle class couple – and pushes them into close proximity, the better to expose their frailties and hypocrisies. What links them is nothing so crass as the search for `lurve' - though that is a component - but the juxtaposition of public behaviour and the dark, hidden urges within.
It all feels comfortingly familiar as we watch Stewart (Paul Kemp), the pudgy estate agent showing Nicola (Melanie Gutteridge) and her alcoholic, unemployed ex-army fiancee, Dan (Paul Thornley) round a prospective property; Stewart going home with a `Songs That Have Changed Our Lives' video from his Christian zealot colleague, and Charlotte (Alexandra Mathie) turning up as carer to look after bar-tender Ambrose's foul-mouthed (unseen) elderly father.
It's even fairly predictable that the Songs of Praise video will lurch into hard-core pornography, that Charlotte will turn out to be a dominatrix manque and that Dan's first date when he breaks up with nagging Nicola will turn out to be Stewart's jolly hockey-sticks sister, Imogen (Sarah Moyle) who, after a sympathetic first date together, will misunderstand the appearance at Dan's hotel table of Nicola coming to say a proper goodbye to him.
Like all good farces, Private Fears in Public Places is, par excellence, a study in cruelty – at the expense particularly of Mathie's beautifully played, sexually rampant, sin-obsessed Charlotte.
It is, however, neither particularly pleasant nor occasionally chuckle-making. As directed by Ayckbourn with a knowing eye to modesty's seductiveness and the destructiveness of sexual repression, it proves, however, unexpectedly moving in its sense of outrage at religious hypocrisy and compassion for life's losers.
- Carole Woddis