In 1977 Peter Hall risked traditionalist ire by staging Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce at the National Theatre, which was seen as far too hallowed a venue for such commercial froth. Thirty-three years on, the critical snobbery surrounding Britain’s most prolific playwright has abated and Hall has returned to the play. Sadly, it’s hard from this distance to see why he stuck his neck out for it.
The action famously involves four couples in three bedrooms displayed side by side. Designer Simon Higlett has resisted the temptation to swathe it all in Seventies retro: this was as much an era of eiderdowns and frilly lampshades as of lava lamps and funk, and his designs have an authentically dowdy, sitcom feel. The sexlessness of these boudoirs reinforces that impression: we could be in bed with Terry and June, or Morecambe and Wise.
The problem is the material feels just as dowdy, with what now looks like remarkably creaky plotting. I confess to laughing my head off when I first saw a provincial production in the late Seventies, but my more jaded modern self kept objecting that none of it quite makes sense: party hostess Kate wouldn’t hide in the spare bed when she could simply go to the bathroom; why do 50 party guests leave simply because Trevor and Susannah have had a row?; why does Susannah bunk up with her posh mother-in-law Delia, beyond the fact that it suits the needs of the scene?
By far the best bits involve Delia – a wonderfully stiff-upper-lip Jenny Seagrove – and her husband Ernest (David Horovitch). Relics from a passing age, their solace is to live it up by eating pilchards in bed for the naughtiness of it. “You only live once – what the hell!” says Delia, and we ache a little, because she hasn’t lived at all.
In the next bedroom along, Finty Williams is a ball of exuberant energy as Kate, while Rachel Pickup is enjoyably neurotic as the “dangerously potty” Susannah. But somehow the madcap mayhem of a nightmare night ruined by Susannah and her equally potty husband Trevor (Orlando Seale) never quite takes off. A gag about a collapsing flat-pack cabinet looks tired and predictable after a set-up that takes as long as assembling it.
There’s undoubtedly a period fascination to the piece. In our age of instant gratification, it’s bizarre to look back at how little gratification anyone seemed to expect three decades ago, in the bedroom or anywhere else. But on this outing, I fear that Ayckbourn’s comedy falls victim to those same raised expectations.
- Simon Edge
NOTE: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from October 2009 and this production’s original dates at the Rose, Kingston.
Alan Ayckbourn’s play has not one bedroom but three as well as many of the traditional components of farce: hints at illicit sex, slamming doors and mistaken motives. Add, in Peter Hall’s hilarious revival, a dream cast zipping through proceedings at a furious (often in both senses) lick and you have an undoubted hit.
It’s almost 35 years since the first production of this piece, which might be sub-titled variations on a theme of middle-class marriage, but its psychological observations remain as recognisable as ever. Delia and Ernest, past the fire of youthful passion, have worked out a modus vivendi which allows him to worry inordinately about the leaking roof while she copes with the emotional side of things by not raising awkward subjects. Pilchards on toast in bed (she in hair net, he re-reading Tom Brown’s Schooldays) marks a high point of decadence. Jane Asher in perm-wig and Nicholas Le Prevost, whose simplest line and tiniest grimace cause audience collapse, provide a masterclass in timing.
Designer Simon Higlett has made the most of the wide Rose stage. His next bedroom, less opulent and half-decorated, belongs to Malcolm and Kate who enjoy their shared sense of the ridiculous, hiding each other’s shoes and squirting shaving foam at each other. Daniel Betts as Malcolm wrestles gamefully with flat-pack furniture while Finty Williams is delightful as good-hearted Kate, giggling throatily at another of her husband’s groan-worthy pranks.
The third bedroom belongs to Nick, flat on his painfully injured back, and his no-nonsense wife Jan. Tony Gardner makes the most of Nick’s frustrations, going into paroxysms to retrieve a dropped book and ending up beside it on the floor for hours while his wife is at Malcolm and Kate’s party being re-acqainted with old flame Trevor. Lucy Briers as Jan briskly avoids a hint of sympathy, but this marriage too looks secure because these two, despite a determined lack of sentimentality, know and allow for each other’s shortcomings.
The fourth couple, Trevor (son to Delia and Ernest) and his estranged, neurotic New-Agey wife Susannah, pop up in all three bedrooms causing mayhem. Orlando Searle and Rachel Pickup play these two who, while they make the plot go round, have less substance than the others and - given Susannah’s paranoia - less chance of making it together. But then, we’re laughing too much to care about this flaky pair’s future.
Alan Ayckbourn is a master of comic truthfulness and this sparkling production does him full justice. It is yoked together in rep with a very different play, Strindberg’s Miss Julie, under the season title (a la Globe?) “Behind Closed Doors”. The opportunity to open the ones in Bedroom Farce - all of them - is a delight.
- Heather Neill