by Alan Ayckbourn.

Orange Tree Theatre 1 Clarence Street TW9 2SA To 29 May 2010.
Mon-Sat 7.45pm Mat Sat 3pm & 29 April, 6 May 2.30pm (+ discussion)
Audio-described 11 May.
Runs 2hr 40min One interval.

TICKETS: 020 8940 3633.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 21 April.

Farce spun through 90 degrees.
Farce traditionally involves lots of doors, and clothes being suddenly removed. But in Alan Ayckbourn’s 1979 Taking Steps floors, not doors, provide the comic possibilities – a farce world turned through 90 degrees. And if there’s not overmuch defrocking and debagging, there’s some pretty important getting in and out of various beds.

Alan Ayckbourn calls this a farce (his only one), yet its farce-like dialogue, multiple exits and entrances and hurtling coincidental action is infused with the humanity of all his work. There’s nothing mechanistic about the husbands and wives; even the inept junior solicitor who turns up is a sympathetic individual, certainly given Matthew Cottle’s switches between politely puzzled vapidity and benevolent radiance.

And the running gags are rooted in comic human qualities: one character’s fearful nervousness, another’s self-buttressing reminders to everybody of her artistic skill, a third’s tendency to send everyone he speaks to asleep.

Only one thing constricts the author’s revival. While the Orange Tree has often worked miracles with large casts on its small space, furniture proves less tractable. A rim around the edge is taken up by the ‘staircases’, and by the time ground and first floor have taken their fill, the attic’s cramped low in a corner with some poor visibility over fellow audience members’ heads.

This three-storey house, presented on the flat in the round, is the play’s mcguffin; wealthy bucket manufacturer Roland plans to buy it, though his marital vagaries put the purchase at risk, to the consternation of needy vendor Bainbridge (Ayckbourn regular Adrian McLoughlin), his veneer of cheer covering panic-edged nervousness.

Anna Francolini as Roland’s indecisive wife, Stephen Beckett’s Mark and Emily Pithon as his nerve-ridden partner spending much of the time retreating, or locked away, are all strong.

But it’s Roland, the booming businessman used to command, downing non-stop snifters, apparently in control yet knowing less of what’s happening than anyone, who’s the key character. Michael Simkins combines confidence with vulnerability; moments when doubt seems likely to interrupt, with blithe misreadings of situations and disintegration when things turn bad.

It’s a beautifully controlled performance in the author’s understandably sympathetic production.

Elizabeth: Anna Francolini.
Mark: Stephen Beckett.
Tristram: Matthew Cottle.
Roland: Michael Simkins.
Bainbridge: Adrian McLoughlin.
Kitty: Emily Pithon.

Director: Alan Ayckbourn.
Designer: Michael Holt.
Lighting: Mick Hughes.
Assistant directors: Lora Davies. Emma Faulkner.

2010-04-25 22:45:48

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