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Review Round-up: Ayckbourn's West End Farce

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Sir Peter Hall’s Rose Theatre revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s 1975 Bedroom Farce transferred last week (30 March 2010, previews from 24 March) to the Duke of York’s in the West End.

The action famously involves four couples in three bedrooms displayed side by side over one night and the morning aftermath. Jenny Seagrove and David Horovitch star as one of the three pairings whose night’s sleep is disrupted by - and onstage double bed invaded by - Trevor (Orlando Seale) and Susannah (Rachel Pickup) and their imploding marriage. 

Peter Hall’s production was first presented last October as part of the Rose’s two-month Behind Closed Doors programme, which examined what happens in the privacy of other people’s homes via revivals, with Bedroom Farce running in rep from 15 October to 28 November 2009 (previews from 1 October) with Strindberg’s Miss Julie, directed by Stephen Unwin, who succeeded Hall as the Kingston venue's artistic director.

  • Simon Edge on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) – “ … Thirty-three years on, the critical snobbery surrounding Britain’s most prolific playwright has abated and Hall has returned to the play. Sadly, it’s hard from this distance to see why he stuck his neck out for it. Designer Simon Higletthas resisted the temptation to swathe it all in Seventies retro … his designs have an authentically dowdy, sitcom feel ... The problem is the material feels just as dowdy, with what now looks like remarkably creaky plotting … none of it quite makes sense … By far the best bits involve Delia – a wonderfully stiff-upper-lip Jenny Seagrove – and her husband Ernest David HorovitchFinty Williams is a ball of exuberant energy as Kate, while Rachel Pickupis enjoyably neurotic as the “dangerously potty” Susannah. But somehow the madcap mayhem of a nightmare night ruined by Susannah and her equally potty husband Trevor Orlando Sealenever quite takes off … There’s undoubtedly a period fascination to the piece. In our age of instant gratification, it’s bizarre to look back at how little gratification anyone seemed to expect three decades ago, in the bedroom or anywhere else. But on this outing, I fear that Ayckbourn’s comedy falls victim to those same raised expectations.”
  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) – “It takes a while to get through the slightly stilted foreplay, but once Peter Hall’s revival loosens up it’s a treat. Mind you … isn’t really a farce and features a marked lack of lust and sex … though most characters speak fluent sarcastic, the show itself is forgiving and uncynical … When the stories come together towards the end of Act I, the play steps up a gear … The mix of self-awareness and self- blindness is hilariously lifelike … Simon Higlett’s set, which shows us three Seventies bedrooms at once, looks a bit cramped here. I never quite believed that Gardner was really in terrible pain, or that Pickup’s OTT self-consciousness was entirely Susannah’s. But I could believe that Seale was enough of a raffish moonchild to go through life being slightly sorry and mostly proud of his bad behaviour. I could believe that Horovitch and Seagrove were happy enough with a relationship they long ago gave up questioning.”
  • Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “The Ayckbourn revival thunders on … Unfortunately, the two stand-out stars of the Rose Theatre’s outing, Jane Asher and Nicholas Le Prevost, haven’t made the journey into town, which dampens Farce’s spirits somewhat. Their replacements, Jenny Seagrove and David Horovitch, are still good value as a no-nonsense, long-married couple with all the best lines … The awkward ages of a couple of cast members make their roles less well-defined than they should be, and Peter Hall’s efficient production takes too long to hit its stride. Nonetheless, it warms up impressively in the second half … Rachel Pickup’s neurotic Susannah is a terrifying vision of most of the Seventies’ worst fashion choices, while Tony Gardner’s fine Nick dispenses the driest of wit from the bed where he’s laid up with a bad back … Bad backs, sardines on toast and some startling profundities about human relationships: Ayckbourn’s current abundant return is a thing to celebrate.”
  • Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) – “This is hardly Ayckbourn at his most complex, but what flows from the straightforward, sitcomish situation are sharply amusing marital spats, elaborately silly physical business, pent-up emotion spilling out into hysteria that’s crying funny and full-on disquieting – in short, the terrifically entertaining spectacle of lives falling apart like botched DIY jobs. Where farce is traditionally animated by an exaggerated need for sex, Bedroom Farce subverting the genre, is motored by a very British kind of sexlessness … Although glaringly artificial and contrived, the action is bedded down on something real: we can all behave in clichéd, gender-stereotyped ways. Ayckbourn reminds us, and no matter how ‘together’ a couple might appear, solitude is only a heartbeat away. Sir Peter … maintains a light touch, allowing darker intimations to filter through. His pacing is superb. The casting is four-poster bed, top-of-the -range classy. David Horovitch and Jenny Seagrove pretty much steal the show … Tony Gardener makes for a splendidly grouchy Nick … Sara Crowe’s Jan, the female equivalent of a kettle that can’t stop boiling … Daniel Betts and Finty Williams shine … while Rachel Pickup and Orlando Seale bring out the full puppyish charm and irritating naievity… ‘Go’.”
  • Rhoda Koenig in the Independent (two stars) – “Daniel Betts (Malcolm) and Finty Williams (Kate) are funny and likable as the couple whose housewarming party is left in bleeding pieces by Trevor and Susannah's histrionics. Tony Gardner is also amusing as Jan's bedbound husband, Nick … Yet even the good performances seem underpowered, the atmosphere tepid. Orlando Seale and Rachel Pickup are a good choice visually for Trevor and Susannah, both very tall with lots of hair and the air of superior but baffled storks. But neither conveys the characters' deep-dyed self-justification, their visceral impulsiveness. When Susannah, enraged, strangles Trevor, she does so practically in slow motion. The bigger problem, however, is the play, which, despite the title, is no farce but a mild boulevard comedy, one which, with its not-really-naughty contretemps, recalls those of the Fifties. In the play's ostensibly most hilarious joke, Trevor's mother passes on to Susannah a wise saying from her own mother: 'When sex rears its ugly head, close your eyes before you see the rest of it.' But is this ersatz-Noël Coward line believable as marital advice in any decade?”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) - "Four into three won't go; except, in Ayckbourn's 1977 play, it miraculously does ... Hall's fine production brings out Ayckbourn's rueful comedy and gains from the cramped conditions of the Duke of York's where the beds are packed tight together. Among the newcomers, I particularly welcomed David Horovitch's Ernest whose booming bonhomie turns to apoplexy at the usurpation of his bedroom and Sara Crowe who, as Jan, is full of ill-concealed rage at her supine husband. As the wreckers, Orlando Seale and Rachel Pickup joyously exhibit the tyranny of the truly selfish. Although less of a revelation than the Orange Tree's sublime Taking Steps, this production reminds us that we still undervalue Ayckbourn's ability to mix mechanical skill and disquieting truth."
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