by Alan Ayckbourn.

Mercury Theatre Balkerne Gate CO1 1PT To 10 March 2012.
Mon-Sat 7.30pm Mat Sat 2.30pm 1 March 2pm.
Audio-described 10 March 2.30pm.
Captioned 6 March.
Post-show Discussion 29 Feb.
Runs 2hr 5min One interval.

TICKETS: 01206 573948.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 27 February.

Comedy of unhappiness with some vivacious performances.
When it hit London in 1975 Alan Ayckbourn’s play about a group of unhappily married friends inviting round the bereaved Colin, whose fiancée has drowned, was seen as introducing a darker side to his comedy. We might say now it began showing his comedy in its true colours.

It’s Colin’s presence, rather than absence, that brings out the tragedy simmering in these lives. Ever happy, he lumbers into other people’s miseries unaware, rubbing sores, hitting wounds, as everyone tries, with increasing difficulty, to keep polite.

Colchester provides a far bigger stage for Gari Jones’ revival than the West End gives for the concurrent revival there. It’s not always helpful – a smaller space helps Diana make clear she’s gearing talk of husband Paul’s infidelity towards suspicions of the taciturn Evelyn. At other times, such as the deranged moment where everyone’s speaking over each other just as the guest-of-honour arrives, are help by Foxton’s spacious designs, which opens-out the ghastly taste of mid-70s suburban affluence.

As he often does, Ayckbourn underwrites this affluence with suggestions of straitened circumstances for some, and the need this engenders to bring business into social occasions. A number of things distinguish Ayckbourn’s plays from the superficially similar world of Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party and in appearance and some mannerisms, Amanda Haberland’s hostess Diana veers unhelpfully towards Abigail’s Beverley.

Even more than in London, the sluttish Evelyn is given a less anti-social identity than in earlier productions – even if only by a smarter, sexier costume than the others – as Clare Humphrey expresses aggressive unsociability mainly through her chewing gum.

The production’s amusing, with some laugh-out-loud moments, as it moves successfully in its downwards spiral, until fusillades of words expire in a final silent misery. Ben Livingstone’s Colin tries too hard at times, but there’s strong work from Ignatius Anthony’s barely-contained Paul and David Tarkenter’s effortfully cheerful John.

But it’s Gina Isaac, transformed in features and movement as the bustling, unreflective yet good-hearted Marge, smiling and practical, who combines detailed comedy of behaviour with a sense of tragedy culminating in her collapsing exhausted beneath her collection of carrier-bags.

Paul: Ignatius Anthony.
Diana: Amanda Haberland.
Evelyn: Clare Humphrey.
Marge: Gina Isaac.
Colin: Ben Livingstone.
John: David Tarkenter.

Director: Gari Jones.
Designer: Foxton.
Lighting: Ben Payne.

2012-02-28 10:58:01

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