So finally, Intimate Exchanges has reached its final pair of plays, the culmination of some ten hours of original theatre totalling, with repetitions, eight (or, possibly, sixteen) different full-length plays performed by two actors.

The set-up of Intimate Exchanges, first seen in 1982, has a fiendish ingenuity that only Alan Ayckbourn could muster. A woman on a patio is tempted to have a cigarette. If she succumbs, she is there to answer the door. If she is strong-willed, she goes to the garden shed, the door is unanswered and she then meets a quite different visitor. From these two alternatives the scenes continue to subdivide until there are eight versions of the main scene of Act 2 – which then generates two further options for a brief five-years-later epilogue.

Central to the action are the Teasdales. Toby is the middle-aged headmaster of a small independent school, his sardonic wit the only real sign of life in him. Celia is his snobbish, emotionally buttoned-up wife, keeping up appearances despite Toby’s incipient alcoholism. They are involved with two other couples: the loyally decent Chair of Governors, Miles, and his artistic nymphomaniac wife, Rowena, and the feckless groundsman Lionel and Sylvie, Celia’s home help, uneducated, but anything but unintelligent.

In A Pageant, signs of attraction appear between Celia and Lionel, between Toby and Sylvie. The latter develops into what the principals think is love and, in a very funny and oddly moving second act, Celia and Sylvie fight for the right to play Boudicca at the school’s pageant while Toby finds a little life stirring within him. A Game of Golf focuses on a potential romance between Celia and Miles, with the Act 2 set-piece concerning high-jinks on the golf course during the Ladies’ International Tournament.

Ayckbourn sees Intimate Exchanges as “a sort of large novel” – and it is the depth that the actors gain from playing the other scenes, actual and speculative, that gives remarkable resonance to the performances. Claudia Elmhirst and Bill Champion are beyond praise, any hint of sketch-show caricature having long since disappeared, even though Elmhirst is called on to play five characters in a virtuoso tour de force in A Game of Golf.

Similarly the understated direction of Alan Ayckbourn and Tim Luscombe achieves quiet miracles. Theatregoers of stamina and discrimination should spend the week of April 23 or 30 at the seaside when, with the aid of two matinees, all eight plays can be seen in six days.

- Ron Simpson

Note: The following FIVE-STAR review dates from July 2006 and Part Two of this production.

Each play in the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s Intimate Exchanges, under the unobtrusively pointed direction of Tim Luscombe and Alan Ayckbourn, adds to the plays’ humanity while intensifying the farcical invention.

A Garden Fete and A Cricket Match, the third and fourth of the eight plays in the series, have no scenes in common after the brief introduction, though the longer second scenes are familiar from the first plays to be staged. The opening seconds determine whether headmaster’s wife Celia Teasdale meets Chairman of Governors Miles Coombes or caretaker/groundsman Lionel Hepplewick in her garden. That and later decisions generate the multiple alternatives, the road not taken or the story left untold.

Toby Teasdale’s marriage is threatened by his alcoholism and his wife’s potential infidelity with Lionel or Miles; Miles’ wife Rowena is pursuing an affair with the P.E. teacher; Lionel’s relationship with the Teasdales’ cleaner, Sylvie Bell, hits snags generated by his fantasising and her intellectual aspirations. And the whole thing is complicated by Miles’ attempts to keep his old friend, now rival, Toby, from being dismissed by the governors.

All the characters (eight in total in A Cricket Match) are played by the marvellously resourceful Claudia Elmhirst and Bill Champion, the central group of characters gaining in depth and resonance with each play, as both actors and audience fit together the jig-saw. Occasional cameos of minor characters provide highly amusing caricature, especially the single scene-stealing appearance of Lionel’s wheel-chair-bound father, rustic poet and prolix philosopher, in A Garden Fete.

The development of “the self-improving woman”, Sylvie, in the same play is touchingly real and her relationship with Toby gives his character stature as more than an entertainingly articulate, misanthropic drunk. In the democratic inter-play balance between characters, Sylvie returns to relatively two-dimensional supporting cast in A Cricket Match, as Celia’s desperation takes centre stage.

Both plays, especially A Cricket Match, have great fun offsetting the rhythm of a typical English summer event (a charity fete, the Headmaster’s XI v. School) against the troubled decisions and indecisions of the participants, with Hepplewick’s lethal 1st XI wicket (a running gag through all the plays) adding torment by bouncer to Miles’ marital dilemmas.

Paradoxically the more we admire the virtuoso performances of playwright and actors, the more we are led to accept the reality of the characters. The full eight-play sequence, to be staged early next year, should combine the levity of the revue sketch with the weight of the three-volume novel.

- Ron Simpson

Note: The following THREE-STAR review dates from May 2006 and Part One of this production.

I’m not sure whether Claudia Elmhirst and Bill Champion have taken on the most difficult jobs in Scarborough or whether the honour should go singly to Tim Luscombe. All they have to do is play all the parts in Alan Ayckbourn’s eight interlocking plays, Intimate Exchanges, staged in full for the first time in over 20 years. Luscombe, on the other hand, has the daunting task of starting the sequence as director in place of the recovering Sir Alan.

All eight plays begin at the same point: Celia, wife of Toby Teasdale, the headmaster of an undistinguished preparatory school, decides (rather a strong word to use in relation to Celia) whether or not to have a late afternoon cigarette. The decision taken leads to one of two paths - as do two further decisions during the first act - so that the big Act 2 set piece (after which the individual plays are named), comes in eight different versions. There’s even a choice of two five-years-later codas for each play – a total of 16 endings!

With Events on a Hotel Terrace, the first in the sequence, neither play nor production has quite hit its virtuosic stride. Only two of the three central couples are involved: the Teasdales and the so-called “rustic” pairing of caretaker-groundsman Lionel Hepplewick and Sylvie, possibly his fiancée. The plot centres on Celia’s unfailing ability to take the wrong option between the reactionary alcoholic Toby and the rural lothario/fantasist Lionel. The key farce scene, with Lionel’s manic waiting at table, is somewhat more contrived than in some of the other plays, where a pageant or cricket match imposes its own rhythm on proceedings.

Claudia Elmhirst and Bill Champion’s natural determination to differentiate their various characters at the outset gives their Teasdales a touch too much caricature, her cut-glass accent (especially in the presence of a menial) just too brittle, his Denis Thatcher-style club-man aged beyond his years, though very funny. Oddly, at first both carry more conviction as the less fully drawn Lionel and Sylvie.

As the play progresses, Celia’s grief and emptiness and Toby’s ineptitude in the presence of anything human become more moving than the two-dimensional opening would suggest. Tim Luscombe’s sure-footed direction and Michael Holt’s flexible staging are both suitably unobtrusive and Events on a Hotel Terrace is a promising, fairly low-key first instalment of Intimate Exchanges, with the anticipation of much more to come by way of plots assembled and relationships fractured, both with clockwork precision.

- Ron Simpson