Alan Ayckbourn’s play made its debut on the 31st July 1969 at the Library Theatre Scarborough but after that had a troubled time. At Scarborough the actor playing Frank Foster, Jeremy Franklin, slipped a disc and Ayckbourn had to take over the role,reading his lines from a book which had missing pages. The impresario Peter Bridge had an option on the play but chose not to exercise it. One of the envisaged marquee stars Robert Morley wanted to alter the script. It eventually opened with Morley (and his “improvements”) in the West End at the Lyric Theatre in August 1970 to excellent reviews and box office takings. Yet the critic Michael Billington said this was at a cost as it was regarded as farce and Ayckbourn as a farceur. This is unfair to the play.
The play, which is principally about the infidelity of marriage, is indeed a comedy of misunderstandings but the two main marital partners Frank Foster (Robert Daws) and Fiona Foster (Caroline Langrishe) and Bob Phillips (Leon Ockenden) and his wife Teresa (Charlie Brooks) occupy the same space on stage whilst occupying two different locations. This baffled the audience and, according to this director Alan Strachan who directed two revivals in 1976 and 1988, requires a lot of rehearsal as the characters pass each other without being aware of their existence. Once you have got it, this provides an intriguing structure, all the more so when all 6 characters are united in the final scene. In brief, the head of department of the company, Frank Foster, invites one of his employees William Featherstone (Matthew Cottle) and his timid wife Mary (Sara Crowe) to dinner. Frank becomes convinced that Mary is having an affaire with another young employee Bob, who is in fact involved with his wife Fiona. The play does become a farce and a romp because of these misunderstandings and one can imagine Robert Morley making the most of Frank Foster’s bumptious idiocy.
It is a period piece with two old fashioned telephones at the front of the stage, one belonging to the Fosters the other to the Phillips. Nowadays the mobile would be used. It presents a traditional 1950s businessman in blazer with his wife with a cut glass accent and the young left-leaning sixties couple Bob and Tersesa.
I like Ayckbourn best when he is observing the middle class in general and the dinner party in particular. Here there is much hilarity when plates are too hot to be passed around. There is the perennial criticism of the cleaner for moving crucial things around. He is essentially a middle class playwright for a middle class audience, but his plays have survived longer than the Angry Young Men and northern working class playwrights of the fifties and sixties. All the cast performed well but Leon Ockenden, who stars in soaps, did not make the transition from a TV set to stage as he tended to shout his lines.
I do not much like the Theatre Royal, Brighton. It is poorly ventilated, old and the seating uncomfortable. It tends to put on commercial shows and theatre with little experimentation. It really is on the ATG circuit. However I was delighted that my gold card admitted me to the private lounge where a glass of Prosecco and nibbles awaited. My hostess was friendly and charming though deaf and dumb which made communication hard. We eventually used the thumbs-up sign. I did not enjoy the play as much as The Norman Conquests. At two and half hours it was too long but nonetheless I have left a theatre many times with a less satisfied feeling.