Astonishingly, Touch Wood by Nick Warburton is the 100th new play to be produced at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in its 11 years of existence – and that’s not all due to the amazing productivity of Alan Ayckbourn – he has only contributed 25!
I am not sure how lofty a position Touch Wood will assume in the pantheon of Scarborough premieres, but it is highly entertaining and a thoroughly assured piece of theatre. Slight it may be (unashamedly so), but not trivial, and the relatively predictable humour of character and eccentricity is soon replaced by something more manic as the play builds its own surreal momentum.
Terence Munro is a self-made man, rising from the streets of Leytonstone to become a tycoon of property, merchandising and strip clubs. He is monarch of all he surveys from his penthouse office suite, showing off his empire to his latest recruit, Anne, who introduces real business methods into his world of “It’s all in my head”.
Margaret, somehow by-passing the massed ranks of security, invades Terence’s eyrie and begins his downfall by cursing him (an improbable mixture of gobbledygook and dramatic pointing) for refusing to sack her daughter as a “dancer” at one of his clubs, thus condemning her to a life of depravity.
Tamara Harvey’s production moves naturally through the increasingly silly developments of the plot: both she and Warburton are very good at suspending disbelief by a sort of incremental absurdity.
The cast are uniformly excellent, even Ruth Gibson whose role as Anne tends to serve the plot rather than exist in three dimensions – and her part in the fall of the house of Munro is too obvious to be a mystery. Mike Burnside’s Terence (pictured), at first a slightly more benign version of Grouty in Porridge, subsides convincingly into religion/superstition and expertly treads the line between pathos and broad comedy.
Ben Lambert’s ineffective Richard, Terence’s Tennyson-quoting son and sad excuse for senior management, and Elaine Claxton, half Shakespeare’s mad Queen Margaret, half a nice, slightly muddled Tesco cashier, are precise, funny and occasionally moving. Timothy Kightley revels in the part of Ken, Terence’s old buddy from the street market: a relentlessly literal, cliché-mangling cross between a teddy bear and a Kray twin.
Lucy Osborne’s designs suggest the opulence of the Munro office well enough, but come into their own in reflecting his collapse: the scene changes by stage hands dressed as Terence’s sins (yes, really!) are a treat.