Playing the later works by comic maestro Alan Ayckbourn is famously difficult, and it seems that as time goes by his plays become darker and darker, to the point where you have to ask: is this actually a comedy?
"It is folly to drown on dry land" says the old proverb and the show’s scenic metaphor is a Victorian folly, a tower that when you ascend its steps to reach the top, you actually end up where you started, as if it contained the manifestation of an Escher staircase, a representation of the snakes and ladders nature of celebrity. This is the central theme of the piece; we meet a talentless failure who has been catapulted to Hello magazine notoriety, his embittered wife who has sacrificed her career at the alter of motherhood and his world-weary agent (played very convincingly and with delicious irony by Les Dennis).
Enter a TV chatshow host who plans to exploit him to kick her falling star back into orbit, then in comes Mr Chortles, a clown and a stalker fan (played unnervingly by Helen Mortimer) who has been booked for his daughter's birthday party. She/he proves to be his nemesis as she tries to build a celebrity career by accusing him of sexual assault, and thus the rapacious beast of celebrity feasts cannibalistically on itself.
This 2004 offering from Ayckbourn addresses a topical phenomenon but doesn’t really say anything new and is very fragmented thematically and dramatically, being one moment a satirical diatribe, the next a soap opera and then a cynical courtroom mini-drama.
Christopher Coghill is relaxed and at times moving as the nonentity, Charlie Conrad, but Emma Swain is woefully miscast as his wife, Linzi. Siobhan Hewlett is gripping in her final breakdown scene as the disgraced TV pundit, Gale, but this scene is the only glimpse of classic Ayckbournian emotional degeneration we see all night. Mark Farrelly and Russell Bentley are both oleaginously excellent as the opposing advocates, but ultimately this production, directed by Guy Retallack, doesn’t make us laugh amidst the angst, chiefly because it doesn’t make the stylistic leap from naturalism to the hightened comic-realism that Ayckbourn demands.