Gate Theatre, Dublin
There’s a startling moment in Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, from 1955, when Big Mama points at a bed and admonishes her daughter-in-law. “When a marriage goes on the rocks,” she yells, “the rocks are right there!”
It’s hardly the only play to have found drama between the sheets, but by 1975, when Alan Ayckbourn took his comic attentions upstairs, it seems to have been much harder to take a sexual position.
“If s-e-x ever rears its ugly head,” his wise Delia tells her fretting daughter-in-law, “close your eyes before you see the rest of it.”
That sentiment belongs to another, airless age (Delia is quoting her mother), but so too does Bedroom Farce, which is a distinctly English throwback to sexual and social anxiety.
In the play, three bedrooms host the comfortably aging Ernest and Delia (Stephen Brennan and Deirdre Donnelly), the infantile young fixer-upper couple Malcolm and Kate (Garrett Lombard and Lorna Quinn), and the recuperating Nick, a yuppie with a back injury, whose wife Jan has shallow reserves of sympathy (Louis Lovett and Kathy Rose O’Brien).
Flitting between them all are Susannah and Trevor (Aoibheann O’Hara and Rory Nolan), two cuckoos of neurosis, whose volatility erupts in every bedroom except their own. For no compelling reason, director Alan Stanford has transplanted this palaver to 1992. This could invoke the sexual hypocrisy of John Major’s Britain, where puritanism and prurience were so hotly entangled, but it has the even less flattering effect of taking a 40-year-old play and dressing it up as a 20-year-old. Do that to a person and they will seem awkward, unhappy and quickly exhausted. The results here are about the same.
Shifting through scenes in an orderly procession, Bedroom Farce has neither the razor wit nor the technical adventure of Ayckbourn’s best works, but staging a farce still requires complexity and speed. The talented, but squandered, cast members deliver their lines slowly and carefully with the cut-glass elocution of a tribe of Joanna Lumleys, as though directed squarely at the hard-of-hearing. It doesn’t just bleed the play of pace, energy and social detail, it kills the piquancy of Ayckbourn’s satire where the middle class comes to laugh at itself.
No one will recognise themselves here, though, just as some staggeringly poor sightlines obscure the production’s best work: the arch references and subtle transitions of Eileen Diss’s set; the wit and timing of Donnelly and Brennan; the comic invention of Nolan’s gauche sad sack; or Lovett’s inspired rescue mission for a book.
Little will conceal the anachronisms of a play whose most sage advice – however laden with innuendo – is that a woman should cook, clean and keep herself presentable in order to satisfy her man. Today, its only value is as a highly potent soporific. The spark has gone out of these creaking bedroom activities and everyone involved is merely going through the motions.
Until March 30th