Over the years, wise theatre-goers have learned that it is impossible to pigeon-hole the plays of Alan Ayckbourn. But there was a time when the more jaundiced tended to regard him as “too clever by half”. A Trip to Scarborough is one of the few Ayckbourn plays where this judgement could be based on something more substantial than envy.
Originally staged in 1982, A Trip to Scarborough is fiendishly ingenious. Described as “variations on the original play by R.B. Sheridan”, it contains three different plots, periods and sets of characters. Set just before Christmas in the Royal Hotel, Scarborough, it merges the present-day (partially re-written for this production) 1942 and 1800, each with the same hotel clerk and porter and nine other actors in various roles.
The main 2007 story-line involves a scam (the true nature of which is cleverly withheld until the closing moments) to do with the sale of the original manuscript of the Sheridan play. In 1942 the drunken exploits of Flight Lieutenant Faversham occupy centre-stage, but the strongest plot-line is the suspicious disappearance of the wife of Major Loveless after a theatre trip (to see A Trip to Scarborough, naturally).
The 1800 scenes are a truncated version of Sheridan’s play, concentrating on Tom Fashion’s outwitting of Lord Foppington for the hand of Miss Hoyden. In a final inspired conflation of the periods, a 21st century costume ball finds the characters from 1800 and 2007 in identical costumes, distinguished only by gesture and accent.
Michael Holt’s stylish set converts the auditorium’s aisles into the Royal’s main staircase and, under the author’s direction, an excellent cast of Scarborough regulars switch roles with fearless nonchalance. Terence Booth’s lispingly affected Lord Foppington sits alongside a suave chancer of an art dealer and a brief comedy turn as a Private Walker-ish spiv. Richard Stacey impresses as the resourceful Tom Fashion, an alcoholic fighter ace and a sex-chasing conference delegate. Katie Foster-Barnes is a delight as rebellious teenager, grieving wife and irrepressible Hoyden and elevates racing upstairs to an art form.
All is in place for an exhilarating evening’s theatre – and yet, somehow, it doesn’t quite fire. Perhaps it’s a question of exposition. The Sheridan scenes lack context and it’s not easy to absorb the relationships of 29 characters in a play of only two hours acting time. As a result the audience is constantly trying to work out who is who and too much expository dialogue lends some scenes a most un-Ayckbourn-like stiffness.