The inclusion of Alan Ayckbourn’s 1971 success, Time and Time Again, in the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s 50th anniversary celebrations provides an admirable opportunity to compare early-mid period Ayckbourn with the supercharged 21st-century version. In truth, though Time and Time Again stands up well 34 years on and the new production is always thoroughly entertaining, it does seem a little cautious by the side of the current Improbable Fiction.
It’s easy to see why Ayckbourn was once thought of as simply a master of the comedy of manners, and even easier with hindsight to recognise the stiletto concealed in the gardening glove. He works with conventional types, to be sure – the boorish self-opinionated businessman, his patient long-suffering wife, the keen young sports-mad executive and his too-attractive fiancée – but with unconventionally acute insight and a willingness to confront unpleasantness. The businessman, for instance, is genuinely (and creepily) obnoxious, with no lovable little traits to flatter the audience.
There is also that great Ayckbourn archetype, the man so selfish he doesn’t notice his selfishness, the unworldly failure who, with no malice aforethought, manages to wreck the lives of his friends and relations. Here it is Leonard (played with effortless insouciance by Giles New), the former teacher and ejected husband who has foisted himself on his sister Anna (Eileen Battye) and her appalling husband Graham (John Branwell), but whose most meaningful relationship seems to be with Bernard, the garden gnome.
Beginning after the funeral of Anna and Leonard’s mother, the play’s four scenes take us through six months of collapsing relationships in a fivesome also including the eager Peter (Neil Grainger), Graham’s star employee, and his fiancée Joan (Laura Doddington). Ayckbourn provides a brief survey of the English sporting year (the set includes “part of a recreation field”) and his usual beady-eyed dissection of family disharmony. But the main motor of a straightforward, but never predictable, plot is the effect of the delectable Joan on three pretty inadequate males.
Michael Holt’s masterly re-creation of conservatory and garden (complete with pond – crucially so) is a practical delight and, as director, Ayckbourn himself secures perfectly balanced performances from his excellent cast - nearly all of whom are also playing in Improbable Fiction. During September, it’s possible to catch the two plays on successive nights, a highly recommended course of action and a fascinating comparison.