I sometimes go to the theatre to see if my long-held preferences and prejudices can be successfully dissolved by seeing a new production. Alan Ayckbourn has always struck me as an overrated playwright, and I'm afraid this revival of one of his most successful plays by the National Theatre has just confirmed my view.
Obviously a playwright as successful and prolific as Ayckbourn must have done a few things right; but too often his writing strikes me as just lazy. This play is supposed to be about morality; it explores what happens in business when we start on the slippery slope downwards and put our family loyalties first, rather than our ethical rules. It starts when we remove paperclips from the office, and it's all downhill from there.
There's nothing wrong with that as a premise for a play, but Ayckbourn's execution is clumsy. There's his trademark tricksiness with the set, a split-level large suburban home which serves as three separate domestic locations. But the cast of characters is confusingly large (I was still puzzling by the end to work out who was related to whom), and the story about a family making bathroom furniture must have seemed alarmingly dated even in the 1980s. Did the writer actually do any research on business before writing it? I don't think so. The characters are cardboard cliches and don't have the psychological depth to be interesting enough for comedy, while the plot has more holes than a kitchen colander. Why does the righteous and ethical Jack, who is determined to clean up the family firm, suddenly start scurrying around with a suitcase full of used banknotes in order to bribe the private detective he has employed to go through the accounts? Why does the detective have to be bribed anyway? And why the tired joke about a brood of dodgy Italian mafiosi brothers? I think the brutal truth is that Ayckbourn really can't be bothered to plug the holes in the story.
In the programme Mark Ravenhill (a much better playwright than Ayckbourn) writes: 'Ayckbourn's genius is that his play takes the form of a Feydeau farce in which characters hurtle from room to room in an attempt to hold on to their secrets'. This is nonsense. Feydeau's plotting really is a work of genius, but Ayckbourn's is shaky by comparison. The play hovers uncertainly between character comedy and farce, but doesn't really make the grade as either. It's a muddle.
This revival is directed by Adam Penford. The kindest thing one can say is that the performances by a large cast, led by Nigel Lindsay as Jack, are competent enough, but none of them really stand out.
Most of the audience in the Olivier laughed more than I did, and clearly went away satisfied. I think the answer is that Ayckbourn is an ideal playwright for people who don't get out to the theatre very much. Intellectual snob that I am, I wish now I had bought tickets for The Silver Tassie instead.