Bet­ter Off Dead

Stephen Joseph the­atre, Scar­bor­ough; un­til 6 Oct

The Observer - The New Review - - Dance - Clare Brennan

For three of its four acts, the tone of Alan Ay­ck­bourn’s new play, his 82nd, is vale­dic­tory, al­most a lament. Algy (Christo­pher God­win, pic­tured be­low) is strug­gling to com­plete his 33rd novel but is be­set, as he sees it, by in­ter­rup­tions. Thelma (Liz Ja­dav), his sec­re­tary, wants to en­thuse him about the web­site he doesn’t see the point of. Jes­sica (Eileen Bat­tye), to whom he has been mar­ried for decades, wants him to ex­plain why some­one has moved the shops so she can­not find them. His pup of a pub­lisher (Laurence Pears) makes him feel like a has-been. Jokes about the im­pos­si­bil­ity of keep­ing up with the speed of change raise sym­pa­thetic laugh­ter from the au­di­ence. Ay­ck­bourn, it seems, is talk­ing to his gen­er­a­tion.

And yet… although al­ways clear, Ay­ck­bourn’s work is sel­dom sim­ple. He is fa­mous for his struc­tural games: here, he grad­u­ally blurs the bound­aries be­tween Algy’s real life and his fic­tional char­ac­ters: bluff York­shire

DCI Tommy Mid­dle­brass (Rus­sell Dixon) and “soft, south­ern” DS Gemma Price (Naomi Petersen). He is also known for his canny plot de­vices which, al­ways dou­ble-pur­posed, de­velop both ac­tion and char­ac­ters: a visit from a jour­nal­ist (Leigh Sy­monds) re­sults in a piece of fake news that shat­ters the life that Algy has known.

The fourth act changes tone and af­firms some­thing that in­forms the struc­ture, plot­ting and char­ac­ter­i­sa­tions of all Ay­ck­bourn plays I can think of: the sense that life is about our con­nec­tions to peo­ple around us, and what makes life worth liv­ing is love. That’s a sense all gen­er­a­tions can share.

Michael Holt’s de­sign, as lit by Ja­son Tay­lor, fol­lows Ay­ck­bourn’s lead – co-opt­ing the au­di­ence’s imag­i­na­tions to com­plete the pic­ture. Ay­ck­bourn’s ac­tors (he also di­rects) form an in­ter­con­nected en­sem­ble, in­di­vid­u­ally and col­lec­tively ex­cel­lent.

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