LIFE OF RILEY
by Alan Ayckbourn.
Tour to 2 April 2011.
Runs 2hr 40min One interval.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 7 February at Oxford Playhouse.
Skilfully laughing all the way to the graveside.
Rod Dungate saw Alan Ayckbourn’s premiere production of his 2010 play in The Round at Newcastle-under-Lyme’s New Victoria Theatre. Now, in an annual pattern established after the unfortunate experience of the playwright’s ‘Damsels in Distress’ with a West End producer, a proscenium arch restaging tours this spring from Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre.
Apart from a lack of any solid surround in the proscenium set, there was little to suggest the different-shaped origins of Ayckbourn’s previous play My Wonderful Day on tour. But the spare dialogue Rod noted in Riley, and the shifts between several separate settings, don’t fit so neatly within the proscenium.
The play reverts to Ayckbourn’s early manner, observing awkwardness in middle-class marriage, and the guilty reticence governing characters’ lives. There are similarities with plays of the early seventies, like the tiptoeing around a character tinged with mortality seen in Absent Friends.
The dying, unseen George Riley’s lust for life and other men’s wives recalls another title character, from The Norman Conquests (both have a playful title). There, too, a non-conformist male awakens reluctant desires, tempting three women to venture on a secret holiday that never takes place.
More so than in those plays, silences sprout between characters, expressive as words in portraying secret miseries and frustrations, often adding melancholy shading to the comedy. And the silences as lighting shifts the focus from area to area around the stage can seem pregnant with either comic misfortune or something somewhat more sinister. Or both.
It’s easy to imagine this working more pointedly with the audience all round, emphasising each others’ concentration on the lighted plot in the middle. Towards the back of the Oxford Playhouse Stalls it oftened seemed remote.
Which doesn’t deny the mix of comedy and truth in the six fine performances. In particular, Kim Wall – who emerged as expert in Ayckbourn’s complexity of through his three performances in Northampton’s 2009 trio from the playwright’s back catalogue – is splendid in puzzlement, anxiety and the effort of momentary self-assertion. And Laura Doddington, up through the Ayckbourn ranks from Scarborough lunch-time shows, gives another fine performance as strong-minded Tamsin.
Tamsin: Laura Doddington.
Kathryn: Liza Goddard.
Monica: Laura Howard.
Simeon: Jamie Kenna.
Jack: Ben Porter.
Colin: Kim Wall.
Director: Alan Ayckbourn.
Designer: Michael Hot.
Lighting: Jason Taylor.
Associate director: Clare Prenton.