Note: The following review dates from July 2001 and this production's earlier run at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough.
The Damsels in Distress trilogy is certainly an interesting idea. Three plays performed by the same cast on the same set, all written and directed by that master of theatrical innovation Alan Ayckbourn.
If nothing else, it is cost-effective.
Ayckbourn has written some rather magnificent parts for women over the years so the prospect of three new additions is a mouth-watering one. GamePlan, the first of the trio, left a big impression and certainly did the job.
Sadly, however, Flatspin rather loses the plot. Not that there isn't the basis of a good play here. This is a comedy-noir, a tale of confused identity, and more confusion surrounding a drug deal entrapment. There's also a love story, a bit of slapstick and some fine performances. Identikit Ayckbourn, if you like.
But Flatspin is also a bit of a mess. The audience laughs but not as heartily as in the past because the "funny" lines aren't that funny (tired, cliched, throwaway - but not that funny). The lead character, Rosie (played by tremendous talent Alison Pargeter), is an actor. Which, smacking of self-indulgence, means that there are a lot of references to the theatre. I would argue that people go to the theatre to escape their reality, not have the reality of drama queens forced upon them.
Beyond these caveats, Bill Champion errs on the deceitful side as Sam Berryman. Led by his libido, Sam lacks moral fibre and is keen to scarper off with the "drug money" after the sting to catch Edna Stricken (Jacqueline King) and after bedding a very willing Rosie. You might have guessed by now that Sam's active trouser parts are his undoing.
The silky voiced Robert Austin crops up as Sam's boss Maurice, bringing with him the exceptional Saskia Butler as Tracy, an agent equipped with martial arts skills and ready to rip the head off anyone who gets in her way. She is joined by Tim Faraday, a physical brute who is put out of action by Rosie mere minutes before the sting takes place ("Go on, hit me, hit me", cue a baton over the head).
Flatspin is not that bad a piece of work, it's just that there is very little to get excited about. Over the years, Ayckbourn has raised everyone's expectations - but Flatspin is disappointing.