Life of Riley

I’ll hold my hands up. A lot of Ayckbourn’s later plays often feel that they have been rushed. Life of Riley, from 2010, doesn’t have a relevant world view (even for then) keeping itself preoccupied with characters that are slightly augmented versions of middle-class tropes that wouldn’t be out of place in the decades preceding it. As Directors say, “All very accessible” and enduringly popular.

For me, however, the idea that an unseen dying George has a messianic pull on three women all locked into marriages / relationships with unprepossessing men may make for good comic atmosphere, but my 2021 modern sensibilities are tingling. So, we say hello to the dipsomaniac Kathryn, the ‘common but full of heart’ Tamsin and the ex-wife Monica, all supposedly grief-stricken and pulled into George’s orbit because, well, what a man. No wonder the husbands – timekeeping Colin, philanderer Jack and farmer Simeon – are laid bare as ‘make do’ when faced with George’s final flourish. You could argue that the fact George is such an attractive hiatus makes the wives re-evaluate just what they have in their husbands, but I am not sure, from a narrative point of view, what credit that gives any of them. And, without spoiling it, what happens to the little seen Tilly after her 16th birthday in Tenerife (and the mirror potentially to Kathryn’s big reveal) is a very awkward male fantasy laid bare.

At this point, Lyndhurst Drama and Musical Society members are probably muttering, “He doesn’t like the play – here we go”. The truth is, however, despite some expected cast trepidation on the first night in earlier scenes, the actors made these ciphers feel like real people. Not quite sure how, but it’s a class act.

Di Buck (Kathryn) and Vic Milne (Colin) found awkward unsaid depth in their portrayals and were great at ‘skirting around the words’ underpinning their relationship. A later revelation of Kathryn’s earlier relationship with George is sensitively played. It’s a ‘by the numbers’ Ayckbourn plot reveal but it doesn’t come across that way. Vic Milne played Colin constantly adrift, befuddled and worrying about clock chimes. Between them they pulled the show in the direction it needed to go and were always on point.

Michele Arkle (Tamsin) and Rupert Bogarde (Jack) started out like something from Birds of a Feather – whiny Essex accents and alpha male attempts to juggle affairs / home life by throwing money and marquees at it. Good acting came through both of them building a credible and realistic relationship despite narratively being given the hardest trajectory to climb.

Ingrid Bond (Monica) and Peter Dawson (Simeon) managed to build complexity into the push/pull of old new relationships despite having much less to do. An invigorating, tireless ensemble is at the core of why this production worked. The three-hander between the wives as they unravel ‘Tenerife’ is particularly worth seeing.

On the production side, Directors Michael Watson and Donna West will have had a hand in interpreting the characters and teasing out the performances so a good first outing. In the second half there’s a slightly more farcical element to the on/off stage action. This is as the ’Tenerife’ debacle builds momentum and could do with a bit more zip. I wasn’t sure what the ‘Queen’ tableau at the end of Act 1 was meant to be, but it looked good.

The Vernon stage is deep and wide, so it presents more opportunity than most societies have to build different rooms / spaces. It was evident that a lot of hard work was undertaken by Brian Buck, John Gardner and Mike Watson in realising the Directors’ vision, but I would probably have done a little less with the set dressing. Di Buck (what a whirlwind) has won awards for costumes, and you can see why. The play demands a lot of changes of ‘shirts and skirts’ and they helped to make sense of the timeline in a way the script doesn’t. Jo Rainforth on hair and make-up did a lovely job too. There’s an in-joke in the play about the value of the stage manager (Stevie Parker), and I’ll lump continuity in here – I know it’s not all about polystyrene cups and flicking switches, so thank you.

Having never been to the Vernon Theatre or seen a Lyndhurst Drama and Musical Society show before, I was taken with the warmth and friendliness of all those who worked on front of house or at the bar. I was also pleased that, given the recent rise in COVID infections in the Forest, a decision was taken to enforce some unobtrusive protocols to keep everyone safe so they could enjoy their evening. Though, I will say, the poster that said “If you feel unwell, go home” did make me chuckle for its directness.

I may not have the Life of Riley and be invited back to the Vernon, but I do recommend this show. The performances are uniformly great, the atmosphere is welcoming and safe, the care and attention taken is impressive. It is the usual conundrum. How each audience member reacts to the narrative is really why we all go to theatre. Go and see for yourself on Friday 26 November and Saturday 27 November (7:45 pm). You won’t be disappointed.

I wonder if Ayckbourn had timeshares in ‘Tenerife’? Probably.