Forty years ago, producers Duncan Weldon and Paul Elliot launched their partnership with this imperishable J B Priestley play, and they’re back in harness for Christopher Luscombe’s cheerful, well paced, if rather strenuous, revival.
Actually, there are six or seven other producers involved, too, as well as the same originating theatre, the Yvonne Arnaud in Guildford, where Peggy Mount as a gargantuan Clara Soppitt first terrorised a seraphic Hugh Lloyd in that 1969 production.
This time round, the Soppitts are a furious, beady-eyed Maureen Lipman and a walrus-moustached Sam Kelly, and the balance has shifted. Lipman’s Clara is much more shrewish and curiously given to angular, revue-style posturing, while Kelly’s Herbert Soppitt is goonish and abstract, coming into his kingdom as the worm who turns, gloriously pleased with himself.
The other two couples who think they might not have been spliced after all – the Alderman and Maria Helliwell, and Councillor Albert and Annie Parker – also undergo marital re-think and truth-telling, until the sottish old photographer, Henry Ormonroyd, hastens a resolution of sorts.
The alderman and the councillor are studies in Edwardian chauvinism and stinginess undone, bullishly played by David Horovitch and Simon Rouse, but it’s really one of those dodgy “ensemble” productions where everyone seems to be doing a Geoff Boycott – batting for number one and trying to run the others out. The subtlest, most truthful playing comes from Susie Blake and, especially, Michelle Dotrice, as Maria and Annie, while Jodie McNee’s skilfully projected maid is pitched at too desperate-to-be-funny a level from the start.
Rosemary Ashe as the “scarlet woman” from the halls is gratingly full-on vulgar. Roy Hudd, though, brings all his music hall cheek to bear on old Ormonroyd, even suggesting he doesn’t quite know where he is, after his prodigious alcoholic intake. These two play a “Dear Old Pals” duet that fools you into thinking this is an episode of The Good Old Days.
Simon Higlett’s brown, cluttered, pleasingly conventional design draws a round of applause on curtain-up, and Luscombe has arranged the entry of the sated sextet very well: they waddle on like seals after feeding time.
The play never fails. It’s a favourite of the reps (or was) and of amateur groups everywhere (still is). And there are moments that always guarantee a warm glow. But it could have been so much better. Perhaps it will settle down and settle in, like Boycott, after all, building a long innings.