The Round at the Stephen Joseph Theatre has been transformed into a garden of grand design, thanks to Roger Glossop. Some of the seats have been sacrificed but the replacement balustrades, shrubbery and water feature are magnificent. Alan Ayckbourn, in the year of his 60th birthday, looks to be treating himself.
So this is Garden, one half of Ayckbourn's simultaneously performed duo of plays, also comprising House, which is on next door at the end stage McCarthy auditorium. According to the creator, these plays can be seen individually and in either order but, naturally, you have to see them both for the full effect. Having witnessed House and being wholly unimpressed, I was actually looking forward to this one; my hero Ayckbourn can't miss twice, surely.
Garden is certainly the more entertaining of the two. It is the day of the village fete. Joanna (Janie Dee) is having secret liaisons in the garden with neighbour Teddy (Robert Blythe) while Warn (Peter Laird) is preparing the garden for the arrival of the tombola, Maypole and the traditional downpour of rain, in between sorting out his peculiar domestic arrangement with Izzie (Antonia Pemberton) and Pearl (Jennifer Luckraft). Married couple Barry (Simon Green) and Lindy Love (Alison Senior) are setting up the trestle tables - well, Barry is instructing his wife (who is about to walk away from this patronising prig) how to.
Again, Ayckbourn demonstrates his love for visual comedy. When Teddy ends their affair, Joanna decides to put out a cry for help by staging feeble suicide attempts in front of the non-speaking, disinterested Warn. In the most ridiculous and hilarious effort to end it all, Joanna hurls herself under the lawn mower.
On the word front, the French dialogue uttered by Sabine Azema (a visiting French actress) is lost on Teddy (and much of the audience one imagines). There is a wonderful moment when, after a five minute speech by Azema, Teddy, drunk and in love with his feet in the water feature, mutters 'I can't remember the last time I talked like this'. C'est magnifique. Ayckbourn also celebrates the English language via Izzie, who has a very wide vocabulary but lacks the ability to use it appropriately.
There is much dwelling on marriage and relationships, but the point of it all is a little muddled. If men aren't bastards (à la Teddy and Barry), they're stammering wimps like Giles (Barry McCarthy) and his son Jake (Danny Nutt) blaming themselves for their wives affairs and forgiving all in the name of love. The female characters are more empowered but exhibit varying degrees of madness. Although there's a lot going on here, these are caricatures rather than rounded characters.
In putting on two plays with the same performers at the same time, Ayckbourn has stretched himself and his wonderful cast but fails to entertain sufficiently. A brave experiment then and a glorious idea, well executed but with one major flaw, the two plays are weak - almost Ayckbourn by numbers. 'That's life, I suppose' both plays end. Actually it's not; life is much more fun.