It has been somewhat disturbing to see two fairly early Alan Ayckbourn plays on successive nights. Both How the Other Loves at Scarborough and the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Bedroom Farce are entertaining and demonstrate Ayckbourn’s skill in manipulating comic situations, but the world view that emerges is (at least on the surface) surprisingly misanthropic.
Young married couples come out of it particularly badly: of five couples in the two plays, four are totally dysfunctional, plagued by misogyny, physical and verbal abuse and assorted neuroses. The message from the calmer older couples seems to be that, if you're never going to relate to each other, good manners dictate that you find a way to pretend to. A more civilised form of self-obsession prevails by middle age.
In Bedroom Farce Ayckbourn’s relationship to sitcom also gives cause for unease. “Did we really used to laugh at this?” asks a contributor's note in the programme; I found myself asking the same question about Leah Muller’s all-too-convincing Susannah, a desperate hysteric reduced at times to feral shrieks. Were the 1970s really so appalling, or is there something wrong with the tone of Tamara Harvey’s production?
It is certainly emphatic and not immune from the attitudinising beloved of television sitcoms. For instance, Denise Black as Delia, mother of the appalling Trevor (Brian Lonsdale), creates a nicely suspended relationship with semi-detached husband Ernest (Christopher Ravenscroft comfortably at home as the officer class in decline), but is too concerned that we see the point of every line. Similarly Niky Wardley (Jan) strikes the poses of every nice, sensible, rather bossy young woman plagued by immature males in sitcomland.
Trevor remains an inspired creation, a typical Ayckbourn figure who can create chaos with an apology. He is the link between the three bedrooms in a long night of the soul that spans mid-evening to early the following morning. His parents prepare for an anniversary dinner at their favourite restaurant; his ex, Jan, sets off to a house-warming party, leaving her husband Nick (Chu Omambala) in bed immobile with back pain; Malcolm (Robin Pearce) and Kate (Laura Elphinstone), happy as fluffy bunnies, look forward to their guests arriving. The separate arrivals of Trevor and Susannah set off a train of events by which the bedrooms witness fights, screaming fits, counselling sessions and attempts at do-it-yourself - everything but sex and sleep!
Despite a capable and well-matched cast the production doesn’t quite have the momentum and comic inevitability of the best Ayckbourn evenings, but Anthony Lamble’s set is a triumph, a comfortable suburban street looking down on a fan-shaped arrangement of three neatly differentiated bedrooms.