What would it be like to walk a mile in each other’s shoes? Would you gain more tolerance? More patience? A greater understanding of each other? Are men and women really so different to each other? These are the dynamics at the heart of Alan Ayckbourn’s 70th play, written in 2006 and which he first directed whilst recovering from a stroke.
Mal and Jill Rodale are a deeply unhappy married couple, while an unexpected turn of events gives them the chance to see their lives from a different perspective, much to the surprise of their children.
Ayckbourn remains one of the most prolific, popular and acclaimed British playwrights. Even if you don’t recognise the name, you’ve probably seen one of his creations in one form or another. His plays are certainly staples on the amateur theatre circuit, with contributions regularly performed at various venues, large and small, around the country at any one time.
Chesil Theatre is one of the more intimate performance spaces you’re likely to encounter, with around 75 seats making a full house. This makes the staging of their latest production, If I Were You, all the more impressive. Peter Liddiard’s set design, combined with subtle and deceptively simple lighting, and enhanced by an impressive array of sound effects, seamlessly switches between the family home and a well-known furniture store. Careful diligence with stage business (an integral part of Ayckbourn plays) and set dressing keeps the transitions between locations running smoothly.
Fine direction by Marina Humphrey keeps the action moving along at a fairly slick pace. Although it may lack the pace of a traditional farce with super quick entrances and exits – and is certainly a slow-burner to start with – the tempo overall seems right for this “slightly unusual” Ayckbourn play. Perhaps events leading up to his stroke contributed to the different ‘feel’ of If I Were You; perhaps he merely wanted to take things in a slightly different direction.
Although there were a few murmurs amongst the audience that this isn’t your accustomed Ayckbourn offering, there is still much to enjoy in the production – not least the performances from the cast of five. Even though the play was only written a few years ago, there are aspects that are somewhat uncomfortable to watch in contemporary times, while the play itself can seem disjointed and contrived, taking a long time to really get going – and yet the cast make the most of the material on offer, following the typical prototypes of Ayckbourn’s stock characters.
Peter Andrews is superb as the boorish, misogynistic, chauvinistic husband, a character you love to hate, while Karen Fitzsimmons proves more than a match for him as the downtrodden, oppressed housewife – it’s not just their children rooting for her! Andrews and Fitzsimmons’ physicality, skill with using multiple props and aptitude for comedy impressively brings their characters to life.
John Wakeman (Dean) supplies solid and energetic support as the couple’s larger-than-life son-in-law (as well as Mal’s work colleague and after-work drinking buddy), while newcomers Francesca Waters and Freddie Scott give promising Chesil Theatre debuts as their daughter, Chrissie, married to Dean, and their school-age son, would-be thespian Sam.
If I Were You runs at Chesil Theatre until Saturday 9 April with performances at 7.45pm each evening.