Like most of Ayckbourn’s later work, Life of Riley is darker, more contemplative and less overtly comical than the plays with which he originally made his name. There are plenty of flashes of his ironic wit, though, in this story of the dying George Riley (who never appears) and the effect he has on his ex-wife, her new partner and four of his friends, while the familiar themes of family relationships and the disconnect between men and women are never far away.
The play takes place in four gardens, each of which occupies a corner of the set, with downstage centre being common ground into which action in any of the four can spill. It sounds restrictive, but actually it gives the director extra flexibility, of which Chaz Davenport makes full and imaginative use.
Kathryn, one of the four friends, is selfish and not really a nice person at all, so it is an achievement by Nikki Wilson to make her quite likeable. A little slow on her cues to begin with, she soon warms up and listens and reacts well (of which more later). Peter Gutteridge is not an unimaginative, lugubrious or boring person, so it is to his credit that he imparts all those qualities to Kathryn’s husband, Colin.
Monica, the ex-wife, is a slightly irritating figure: she is played initially by Kristy Dixon as attractive, but rather drippy and inclined to become overwrought. The character makes more sense as she develops more backbone in the second act. Her partner, Simeon, is a stolid farmer and Niall Harris conveys convincingly his frustration at and yearning for this flighty female who has come into his life.
The other pair of friends are Jack and Tamsin. On the first night anyway, one felt that Mike Tong was never completely comfortable in the role of Jack: Jack is a dominant character but he perhaps did not dominate enough. It is difficult to define, but the body language and the movement were just not quite right. Tamsin is actually the most capable and well-together person on the stage and Kimberley Scott seems to have taken the justifiable decision to underplay her. But underplaying can be taken too far, and more reaction and vivacity would transform the character. Near the end of act 1, she and Kathryn sit on the edge of the stage while Kathryn imparts some pretty sensational information, but Tamsin’s reaction is far too muted. The positions are reversed near the start of act 2 and by tiny but skilful adjustments of her posture, changes of facial expression and movement of her eyes, Kathryn shows that she is taking in everything that is being said to her.
It is perhaps unfair to mention it, but on the opening night there was a classic example of the amateur actor’s toe-curling nightmare: because two lines are similar, a chunk of act 2 dialogue found itself in act 1. Apart from a growing look of panic in their eyes and a rather extended pause, full marks to Peter Gutteridge and Mike Tong for hauling the train back onto the tracks before it crashed into the buffers.
That incident had nothing to do with how I felt as I came away. It had been a good play, well directed and capably performed, yet I felt slightly dissatisfied: it just lacked that magic ingredient of sparkle, pizzazz or whatever it is that draws in and engages an audience. I genuinely hope that the accomplished cast find it during the rest of the run, which is until 28 October at 7.45 each evening.