RolePlay: World Premiere Reviews
North By Northwest Revisited (by Michael Billington)
"Alan Ayckbourn is unstoppable. Having written two new plays for the summer, GamePlan and FlatSpin, he suddenly decided to add a third, RolePlay, to create an autumn treble. The trilogy has now been unveiled and several things become clear: that the plays get richer as they go along, that Ayckbourn is lately both narrative-driven and morally concerned, and that our most famous theatrical innovator is really a closet movie buff.
Take the two most recent plays, which, like GamePlan, are set in an apartment in London's Docklands. In FlatSpin, an out-of-work actor, Rosie Seymour takes on the role of temporary janitor. Assumed to be the owner of a flat by an intrusive neighbour, she goes along with the mistaken identity only to become embroiled in a life threatening secret service plot. What is this but North by Northwest with Rosie as a female Roger O Thornhill?
A movie myth yields even richer rewards in RolePlay, the trilogy's high point. The flat is now occupied by Justin, a software designer, who, along with his prissy girlfriend, is preparing to entertain their respective parents. Before they can do so the flat is invaded by two unexpected neighbours: a dubious boxing-promoter's moll and a gun-toting bodyguard. As Justin attempts to preserve a facade of bourgeois normality in the presence of two gangland fugitives, one is inevitably reminded of The Desperate Hours.
But the trilogy as a whole is far more than a tribute to the movies. It shows Ayckbourn moving beyond his familiar terrain of suburban angst to deal with metropolitan madness and moral confusion. We live, he implies, in a vicious, gain-driven society; but he also suggests it is possible to rise above it. In both GamePlan, which deals with teenage prostitution, and in FlatSpin, profit drives the plot. The defining moment, however, comes in the final play when Justin rejects both his own success ethic and the world of his prospective father-in-law, a Yorkshire bigot who owns a garden centre. Justin's flight may be romantic but, in its way, the slammed door is as decisive as Nora's in A Doll's House.
You can pick out flaws in individual plays: it seems odd, for instance, that Justin's temporarily released girlfriend doesn't call the police. But Ayckbourn's achievement is to have created three tall stories that offer an anxiously comic picture of the valueless void we currently inhabit.
With permanent companies under threat, he also shows what can be accomplished by an individually gifted ensemble. Alison Pargeter's Rosie in FlatSpin is all breathless eroticism; in RolePlay, Bill Champion's Justin copes heroically with Jacqueline King as his sozzled mum and Robert Austin as the Doncaster bigmouth. At the end of a long day Ayckbourn revealed that the trilogy had played almost to capacity and paid tribute to his cast. In movie terms, he might well have dubbed them The Magnificent Seven."
(The Guardian, 11 September 2001)
RolePlay (by Jeremy Kingston)
"The third of Alan Ayckbourn's repertory season of plays, using the same actors and the same London Docklands set, is a wonderfully shrewd, comic and poignant piece, providing good chewy material for all seven actors, and doing what is uncommon in an Ayckbourn play: showing without mockery a couple falling in love.
This is not to say there won't be troubles ahead for Justin (computer programmer, shy, courteous) and Paige (ex-lapdancer, on the run from abusive boxing promoter), but such upsets lie beyond the reach of the two-act play.
Justin and his girlfriend Julie have decided to announce their engagement at a dinner party for her parents, big in Doncaster garden centres, and his mother, a drinker from Godalming. The couple's incompatibility soon becomes evident from her misunderstanding of his defensive irony.
Ayckbourn doesn't overemphasise the differences, and we sense how they could well have fallen for each other, but now, with her parents arriving, she has reverted to baby-daughter behaviour. Her concern for spotless dessert forks proves fatal to her interests because, while she is out of the flat searching Docklands for cutlery, Paige drops in. Literally. From an upstairs flat on to Justin's balcony. Soon to be followed - through the front door this time - by Micky, her ex-boxer minder.
Enter the fond Yorkshire father, unforgivingly racist beneath his jolly jokes, with the dippy mother tagging daintily behind; enter the Godalming lush all but absolutely fab. Three normally separate English worlds are now in collision, and ahead lie confusions, non sequiturs, desperate inventions, frenzied outbursts and, from Paige, a moment of heartfelt grief.
Ayckbourn directs, in the round, but there are crucial scenes where six actors remain immobile while the seventh speaks. When the play tours next year as an end-on production what happens in these scenes will become clearer to all. In one such scene Bill Champion's Justin, not speaking, shows us that his heart is turning over. It is a fine portrayal of a quiet man longing for the rougher unpredictabilities of life. Alison Pargeter's unillusioned Paige, crisp and mischievous, looks certain to provide these, in contrast to the sweet conventionality nicely caught by Saskia Butler.
Grand playing also by Jacqueline King, carried back to West Surrey by her new champion (Tim Faraday), and from Robert Austin and Beth Tuckey as the devoted Doncaster duo left to face the music, which in this case turns out to be the beating on the door by someone bent on vengeance, and black too. This is Ayckbourn in great form, subtle, funny and satisfying."
(The Times, 6 September 2001)
RolePlay (by John Peter)
"Welcome back to Ayckbourn country, and one of the master's favourite jousting grounds: the disastrous invasion of the family get-together. The setting is the same as in the current GamePlan and FlatSpin: a gleaming docklands flat. The cast is the same, too. Justin and Julie-Ann (Bill Champion, Saskia Butler), both in computers, have invited their prospective in-laws to announce their engagement. He is serious, kind, eager to please, anxious: when you see his ghastly mother from Godalming (Jacqueline King), you know he has plenty to be anxious about. She is a shrill little domestic dynamo, a pouter pigeon with a mission. When you see Julie-Ann's parents, a neanderthal conservative businessman and compulsive joker (Robert Austin) with a dim, twee wife (Beth Tuckey) to match, you understand why her older sisters live far away. This is bad enough chemistry; but the bizarre arrival from upstairs of a boxing promoter's moll (Alison Pargeter) and her huge, intellectually challenged minder (Tim Faraday) has a near-apoplectic impact. One of Ayckbourn's greatest skills is the mixing of the accidental and the improbable with the inevitable and the realistic, and here he displays it with magisterial cunning. The writing is as funny, nimble and lethally observant as ever. The very last 20-second scene is a mistake, but, by then, who cares?"
(Sunday Times, 16 September 2001)
Classic Humour In Family Farce (by David Jeffels)
"With this, his 60th play, Alan Ayckbourn proves he is still at the peak of his craft. After a slow start aggravated by what seemed to be too many pregnant pauses, the knight of comedy writing produces hilarious lines and develops brilliant characters reminiscent of his earlier classic works.
Premiering at the Stephen Joseph, this is the third play in a themed trio written this season. A young couple's plan to announce their engagement at a family dinner party goes awry with the arrival of guests from an upstairs flat and a mother worse for drink.
The play gathers momentum with the arrival of the fiancé's mother -a marvellous performance by Jacqueline King who steals the show with her splendid timing and superb delivery of some wonderful laugh lines.
Robert Austin is strong in the role of the brusque South Yorkshire businessman, anxious for his daughter's happiness, while Beth Tuckey as his wife is a true Ayckbourn character with her naivety and irritating domesticity.
Bill Champion's polished performance as the fiancé is well supported by Saskia Butler as his partner. Both work well throughout, providing an excellent contrast to the invading undesirable neighbours. Tim Faraday is convincing as the gun-carrying menacing individual while Alison Pargeter as the desperate young lap dancer he is protecting earns well deserved applause.
Ayckbourn's direction is first class and well complemented by Roger Glossop's design, while Mick Hughes is responsible for the lighting and Christine Wall for the costumes."
(The Stage, 13 September 2001)
RolePlay (by Charles Hutchinson)
"No one had expected a third Alan Ayckbourn premiere this summer, least of all his company of actors, but the modern master is on a roll, writing plays as fast as he is losing weight.
In fact, RolePlay was such a late addition to Ayckbourn's Damsels In Distress season that it could be given only a short opening burst, but it will return for a second spell in November?
With three plays in quick succession, each to be performed on the same set by the same cast, part of the joy this summer has been to watch the now familiar performers take on different roles - and that includes Roger Glossop's set design of a plush if anonymous Docklands apartment in London.
This time, the Thames waters are stormy, and the apartment has developed a design fault: no one in the kitchen can hear a word anyone says from the bedroom. In RolePlay, that unseen room is to be converted into a temporary dining area or an introductory supper party for the parents of nervy, indecisive computer software designer Justin Lazenby (Bill Champion) and his obsessive, perfectionist, menstrual girlfriend, computer programmer Julie-Ann (Saskia Butler): a chance to announce their engagement. They wear Rugby Union shirts, his a multicoloured Harlequins, hers a pink and white striped variation; the colours and design say everything about them.
Everything must go to plan, for Julie and her "Justi", but in drops blonde and bruised retired lap dancer Paige Petite (Alison Pargeter). She has fallen from an upstairs flat in an attempt to escape Micky Rale (Tim Faraday), monosyllabic Neanderthal security man for boxing promoter Rudy Raven, who is on his way home to give her grief for "carrying on" with another bloke. She won't leave without a fight, Rale won't leave her side, and so it will be dinner for eight: the four to be joined by Julie-Ann's stereotypical blunt Yorkshireman dad, Doncaster garden centre magnate Derek Jobson (Robert Austin) and his mousey wife Dee (Beth Tuckey), and Justin's alcoholic, acid-tongued mother, Arabella (Jacqueline King), and whatever handsome flotsam she brings with her.
Ayckbourn's writing is in the groove, the humour flowing with ease, the characterisation familiar rather than offering new insights; the fly in the comedy ointment and darkness in the light comes from each person playing out a role that isn't bringing them happiness."
(Yorkshire Evening Press, 5 September 2001)
RolePlay (by Lynda Murdin)
"Football is not the only pastime that rejoices in hat-tricks. RolePlay is the third comedy this season hit into the theatrical net by playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourn.
Also the landmark 60th by the SJT's artistic director, it shares the same cast of seven and the same smart London flat as GamePlan and FlatSpin.
Otherwise linked only by the umbrella title, Damsels in Distress, it tells a separate story.
Actually, it's a rather far-fetched story - but great fun. Julie-Ann (Saskia Butler) and Justin (Bill Champion) are preparing an introductory dinner-party for their respective parents. Julie-Ann gets tense and realising the cutlery is not complete, goes out in search of a fork (yes, it leads to a joke about another word beginning with F and ending in K. But the plot does keep us guessing.)
Enter Paige (Alison Pargeter), who's somehow climbed down outside the building from the penthouse. Found by Justin clinging to his balcony, she is in a sorry state and, although from upstairs, proves to be a downstairs character: a sexy Cockney blonde.
She is the girlfriend of a boxing promoter and has escaped while being minded by Micky (Tim Faraday), a bruiser in a pin-striped suit. He follows her, gets threatening, and the two become uninvited dinner guests.
Before writing RolePlay, Ayckbourn told me it would be "towards a dark farce". It seems to have come out lighter in the wash. It's certainly farcical, but the darkness is set at a low temperature.
The playwright also indicated he didn't feel comfortable writing in the Yorkshire idiom. Yet he makes a hilarious double-act out of Julie-Ann's over-protective parents (Beth Tuckey and Robert Austin). From Doncaster, they might be deemed Northern stereotypes if we didn't all know people like them.
Oddly, with Ayckbourn and John Godber, Yorkshire's two leading playwrights, deciding to premiere their latest plays on the selfsame night , I didn't feel I was totally missing out on the ubiquitous Godber. He at times came to mind as Ayckbourn touched on themes such as class divisions and macho menace.
Yet Ayckbourn's style is different. It's with a happy convenience of timing born out of theatrical convention that his characters make their entrances and exits, phones and doorbells ring. Nevertheless, the playwright, who also directs, introduces some lengthy pauses - to stop us laughing and think?
In a hotchpotch of humour, there are flashes of his comic genius - for example in the disconcerting similarities between mother and daughter, and a complaint about sex and bad language in modern day entertainment - superbly ironic in view of his own current works.
The actors, while working beautifully together as a team, each score a goal with individual characterisation. That's not only thanks to their talents but to the fact that each part has a similar weight. As Justin's mother, Jacqueline King marginally appears least, yet manages to make the biggest impact, giving a wonderfully observed portrayal of a glamorous, gravel-voiced, sophisticated soak from Surrey.
Viewed as stand-alone plays, the three - GamePlan, a truly dark comedy about teenage sex and the Internet, FlatSpin, a comedy thriller about a drugs' sting, and now RolePlay - each show that Ayckbourn, 62, is still on top form. Yet the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Viewed as three sections of a triptych, they become another "tour de force" of staging from this master craftsman. A brilliant result."
(Yorkshire Post, 6 September 2001)
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