In case you've missed the hoopla surrounding this London staging of House and Garden, the gimmick is that you get two Alan Ayckbourn comedies, if not exactly for the price of one, then at least as part of one grand package. And it's a very compelling package indeed.
Just imagine. Two full-length plays performed in two theatres by the same cast at the same time. The scenario is itself the stuff of vintage Ayckbourn, and I wouldn't be surprised if a backstage comedy wasn't long in coming. As it is, we have to make do with reading the newspaper reports of behind-the-scenes traffic jams and marvelling that the actors don't seem more out of breath.
Both plays are set in the grounds of a country estate on the same August Saturday of the annual village fete. Up in the House, Teddy and Trish Platt are preparing for the pre-fete lunch where the guests of honour include a French film star who has come to open the fete, and a political fixer, Gavin Ryng-Mayne 'with a Y', who has come to assess Teddy's potential as a Parliamentary candidate. Proceedings are complicated by the cold war ensuing between the Platts, in which Trish (a frosty Jane Asher) refuses to acknowledge the presence of her womanising husband (David Haig).
Meanwhile, down in the Garden, the taciturn gardener Warn is bemused by the brewing storm clouds, both meteorological as well as psychological, as Teddy 's neighbour and jilted lover Joanna goes slowly insane while her husband Giles gets his Morris dancing kit on and the locals gather for the festivities. Supplementary storylines involve Warn's living arrangements with the malapropping housekeeper Izzie and her daughter Pearl, local shopkeeper and fete organiser Barry and his frazzled wife Lindy, and the Platt's precocious and flirtatious daughter Sally and her admirer Jake.
Though closely interlinked, House and Garden are meant to work as well as stand-alone plays. Of course, they don't. Often you just get going with a sub-plot when the actors involved up-stakes to the adjoining theatre for the pay-off. If you were to see only one play, or even leave too long before seeing the second, you'd be left feeling more frustrated than fascinated.
That said, the two comedies are cleverer than mere serialisation. It probably doesn't matter much what order you see them in, though you may want to schedule to suit your mood. House is perhaps meatier and certainly more serious, while Garden is quite a lot of frothy fun.
In both, the cast are superb. David Haig, the real star of the evening, plays Teddy with hilarious hangdog weariness and demonstrates his unique knack of nodding with his whole body. Other stand-outs are Malcolm Sinclair as the sinister Ryng-Mayne, Michael Siberry as the genial Giles, and Sian Thomas's Joanna whose pathetic suicide attempts with a scarf and lawnmower offer some of the biggest laughs. Roger Glossop's sets are also worthy of special mention, particularly the greenery which transforms the Olivier into the lush garden.
So, an admirable effort from the prolific Ayckbourn who - as both writer and director - has pulled off an impressive theatrical experiment here. As individual plays, House and Garden may be lacking, but the sum of their parts - which also includes the highly amusing fete laid on for theatregoers afterwards in the National's foyer - is a treat.