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Way Upstream (Chichester Festival Theatre)

Nadia Fall revives Ayckbourn's play at Chichester Festival Theatre

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Sarah Parish, Peter Forbes and Jill Halfpenny
© Simon Annand

Don't be gulled by the chirpy, recognisably Ayckbournian title, nor by the extraordinarily detailed river and tree-lined bank that designer Ben Stones has magicked upon the Chichester stage, nor indeed by the archetypal quartet of suburbanites who clamber aboard their rented cabin cruiser for a fortnight of bickering. As Way Upstream steers its chartered boat through uncharted theatrical waters the going gets very rough indeed.

The technical demands of Alan Ayckbourn's 1981 play have led to its being revived only rarely since its London unveiling flooded the National Theatre's Lyttelton electrics. Small wonder: it needs a river you can swim in – underwater – and sail a boat through.

Yet the setting is no gimmick, it's the play's raison d'être. Way Upstream starts in a recognisable place, as business partners Keith (Peter Forbes) and Alistair (Jason Hughes) head off on holiday with their respective wives, man-eating moaner June (Sarah Parish) and nervy, lifebelt-wearing Emma (Jill Halfpenny). Keith is a roaring bully who soon wrests skipperdom from his bumbling colleague.

Once this familiar company has built a head of steam, though, Ayckbourn takes a sharp turn to port and introduces Vince, a denim-clad Mephisto and the type of character who has never previously entered his world. He's a charmer, seducer, sociopath and the embodiment of evil.

Ben Stones's design, with lighting by Tim Mitchell
© Simon Annand

Way Upstream is often called an allegory, but of what? The river is called the Orb, which tells us it's about the world we live in (and, as Peter Forbes's tetchy, David Ryall-like Keith explains, "Boats are a society in miniature"); so the fact that they're heading upstream to Armageddon Bridge is probably some kind of clue. But perhaps that's just the playwright's tease. Or maybe not...

What the play is, unquestionably, is a neglected near-masterwork that was overdue for rediscovery. An elemental, almost mystical drama that feels like Jerusalem crossed with High Plains Drifter, Way Upstream is dated only by the absence of mobile phones. Granted, at three hours it feels 20 minutes too long (the arrival of a Vince's sidekick, Fleur, leads to some cuttable flab), but the final half hour counts among the boldest scenes Ayckbourn has attempted before or since, and director Nadia Fall stages it with breathless attack.

A cinematic play that was made into a good and faithful film by fellow playwright Terry Johnson, Way Upstream is far more episodic than most of Ayckbourn's work and Fall covers the transition between scenes with some delicious time-lapse effects, all executed in mime by a near-flawless cast. It's not perfect – some misplaced dual perspectives jar and her vision of Jason Durr's insidious Vince is too soft-edged – but she ‘gets' the play as it peels away from the quayside pubs and village shops and heads upstream towards, well, somewhere other. For two of the characters it's a life-changing voyage.

Way Upstream runs at Chichester Festival Theatre until 16 May