Arriving on a very wet and stormy night, early at the Chesil Theatre, it was disconcerting to find the main entrance door closed but with a sign pointing to a side entrance. Further tentative exploration of the stage door led to an extremely kind welcome from a man sporting the obligatory Santa’s elf hat who welcomed one into the tiny foyer of this utterly seductive theatre.
This genial guy turned out to be none other than the director himself, Peter Liddiard. His enthusiasm for this former church-cum-amateur theatre was infectious. Posters around the bar demonstrated a far more adventurous than usual repertoire for an amateur company, from Juno and the Paycock to the next production: Blood and Ice by Liz Lochhead, about Byron and Mary Shelley.
But for tonight we had the ever-reliable stalwart, Alan Ayckbourn, so no surprises. You know you are getting domestic comedy, marital aggro, some slapstick and a reasonably happy ending. That’s indeed what we got but what is challenging for the Chesil Theatre is fitting all this onto their tiny acting space. Peter Liddiard’s set rises to the occasion superbly. Three different rooms are delineated by simple strips on the floor and it is to the actors’ credit that every time a character moves from one room to another, you feel they are entering a completely different area. Not easy.
First up, as characters, are Bernard, the failure doctor played by Gary Nicholson, and the grumpy old man, Harvey, played by Mark Frank: sound performances with a developing pathos in both of them. Then there’s Neville (John Wakeman) the nominal master of the house, and his fickle wife, Belinda (Denise Truscott). He is obsessed with fixing things but doesn’t see that it is his own marriage which needs fixing more than any gadget. Misconnecting relationships are the common thread in this play. Bernard’s obsession with his puppet show, a sad substitute for his own children, is his escape from the drunken behaviour of his wife, Phyllis, played, again with increasing pathos, by Rachel O’Neill. Eddie, the useless father (Jim Glaister), and Pattie, his long-suffering wife (Nicky Malliarou), are another married couple who seem to have lost whatever attracted them to each other in the first place. But it was Jim Glaister who gave an inspired piece of character acting when he mouthed silently, as a child does when learning to read, the comic magazine in front of him. You need such originality in such a clichéd script.
And if there was a very slight criticism of this evening at all, it was that. Ayckbourn is now pretty dated. First performed in 1980, albeit successfully revived in 2010, the play seems naïve and innocent. It isn’t just a matter of ginger wine or melting mousse, wind- up toys or diaphanous negligees, more a case that you wouldn’t today tolerate so tacitly such compromises in your personal life.
Poor Rachel, played so well by Karen Fitzsimmons, wouldn’t humiliate herself in 2016 by saying that in her late forties, she is too old to take up either smoking or sex! And the foppish would-be writer, Clive, played very bravely by Dick Hall (not easy to expose your midriff in such a small space), would be kicked out of the house as a sponger very early on.
But this is a pedantic point of view, so let’s focus on the positive. This is a seasonal production that’s slick, assured and fun. The first night was supposed to be Saturday but such was the demand for tickets that the company sacrificed their dress rehearsal night on Friday and made that an extra performance instead. That’s customer loyalty for you. Chesil Theatre deserves every single one of its very many satisfied patrons.
Future performances: 21-25 November at 7.45 and 26 N0vember at 2.30 and 7.45, but all performances are currently sold out.