Ayckbourn has long been enjoyed for an unerring sense of the rhythms and pulse of suburban life. Audiences flock in to enjoy peering at the sort of libidinous mischief and conniving shenanigans that they know to be the warp and weft of the lives of their neighbours.
But here is a difference! The set would not be out of place in Dibley and we would not be surprised if Dawn French was at the door. As if to confirm this possibility the first to arrive is Ilsa (Aureillia Storey) who has an accent that you could butter scones with.
The local writing group is arriving and they are about to have their Christmas meeting in Arnold’s living room. The first act explores the hopes and dreams of these ‘wannabes’. We meet a lesbian farm worker who tries and fails to write period romance, the local geek who prefers science fiction and a secretary who knocks out a crime novel or so (unpublished) every month. Add a dash of gooey children’s story writing and a retired school teacher who is working on ‘Pilgrim’s Progress – the Musical’ to complete the cocktail.
Towards the end of the first act, a burst of elephantine flatulence signals a storm – a nice explosive crack with a flickering lightning flash might have been more in the spirit of the moment – and we move into a parallel universe where the plot lines of the putative authors take over.
The second act gives us rapid costume changes. Actors move from Red Dwarf to eighteenth century larking about and are invited to ‘ham it up’ in a variety of styles. Now there’s an early Christmas! Dan Gough offers a splendid Christie ‘tec in mac, trilby and a goody bag of clichés. Linda Connor gives us a snooty suspect one minute, a magenta wigged space chick the next and all with consummate ease. An ancient daffodil phone magically morphs into a modern mobile or disappears altogether as we move through the ages. At the centre of this mayhem is Arnold himself (an avuncular Matthew Salisbury) coping admirably with the absurdity of it all while sporting last year’s Christmas jumper.
All of this is done with lots of attack and an energy which fills the auditorium. There are plenty of good laughs and funny moments. We are offered a couple of hours of bizarre silliness which cannot fail to appeal to those who enjoy bizarre silliness.
Favourite moment? At the end of the play four spacemen push on a giant walnut and, once opened, we discover it to contain a cheery elf – the splendid Aureillia Stone once more – who leads us through the musical conclusion of the evening.
An evening well spent in the theatre thanks to a fine cast and the canny direction of Vicky Whitehill.