Janie Dee, eyes twinkling, dress provocatively slit to the thigh, hair piled high, gives a beautiful performance on the very same stage where Julia McKenzie played the role in a far more elaborate production. Both artists, primarily musical theatre comediennes, extended their range as Susan; Dee – who started with this revival last summer in Scarborough - especially conveys sexual frustration as she sinks into mental crisis.
Literally out on the lawn she speaks (and hears) gobbledegook after banging her head on a garden implement. Lost to husband Gerald (Stuart Fox) and, referring to their non-existent intimate life, she says she does the gardening on her own, as well; then, rather saucily, she tweaks her own nipples.
Gerald is writing a short history of the parish dating back to 1386. And she is also saddled with a widowed sister-in-law, Muriel (Sarah Lawn replaced the indisposed Joanna David on opening night, though producer Bill Kenwright announced her from the stage as “Sarah Lamb”) who tries to join hands with the dead through her Ouija board and makes inedible omelettes, and a son, Rick (Dominic Hecht), who doesn’t speak to his parents.
This is the opposite of a multi-viewpoint drama: it all happens in Susan’s head. The fantasy family – caring husband (Bill Champion), athletic brother (Martin Parr) and devoted daughter Lucy (Perdita Avery) – flit sunnily (and a bit annoyingly) around dressed in white and bearing champagne; Susan, in this incarnation, is a best-selling historical novelist.
The play gets seriously clever, and seriously funny, when the two worlds start mingling. Susan makes love with “the devil” (white husband in red) and lies spread-eagled in the rain after the local doctor (a really lovely performance by Paul Kemp) confesses he’s always fancied her; silent son starts speaking and announces he’s going to Thailand with his new bride; and Gerald turns up in full bishop’s fig at Lucy’s wedding.
Roger Glossop’s design, cunningly lit by Mick Hughes, is a simple arrangement of grassy mounds and mini-hillocks on which Ayckbourn (who also directs) and Dee, with a catch in her voice and a tear in her eye, paint a sad and funny picture of yearning and disintegration while never quite leaping the confines of their middle class comfort zone. It’s a good evening that never really sets the pulse racing.
- Michael Coveney