In case you hadn’t noticed all the fuss being made in Northampton, playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourn celebrates his 70th birthday this year. But why mark it in Northampton? Because the artistic director of the Royal & Derngate, Laurie Sansom, was Sir Alan’s assistant at Scarborough before bringing his considerable talents southwards.
And who are we to complain? If it means plays of extraordinary calibre and poignancy, combined with the trademark Ayckbourn barbs and brilliance, staged by actors of acuity, wit and stature, then let the celebrations continue for as long as possible.
Just Between Ourselves is the curtain-raiser in a trilogy from across the Ayckbourn canon that will run between now and August. Dating from 1976, it has all the hallmarks that signal the prolific writer at his most acerbic and perceptive.
With a cast of just five, it follows the intertwining fortunes of Dennis and Vera and their younger counterparts Neil and Pam over the course of four birthdays in one year. The mechanics of the plot are less significant than the dynamics of the relationships, and Dennis’s quiet suburban destruction of his wife without ever suspecting what he’s doing is played out exquisitely by the supremely talented pairing of Kim Wall and Dorothy Atkinson.
Atkinson’s fragile disintegration at the witless hands of Wall’s immaculately drawn Dennis is perfectly judged to wrench tears alongside the laughs, while Matthew Cottle and Lucy Briers as the younger couple wring their own bittersweet heartache from their mutual imploding co-dependency. There’s a fine, painfully accurate Mother, too, from Marlene Sidaway, playing her own insidious part in Vera’s breakdown.
Director Mark Rosenblatt displays a deft touch, allowing a meticulous set by Ben Stones to offset the players’ sublime performances, without himself becoming heavy-handed or intrusive. The result is an impeccable opener to the Ayckbourn season that augurs well for the coming months as the same ensemble take on works from 1988 and 2004.
Whatever the initial justification for the celebration, Northampton should be rightly proud of its tribute to Ayckbourn.