King’s Theatre Edinburgh (venue)
03 February 2020 (released)
04 February 2020
This is another revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s 1977 hit play which, like the majority of his works, achieved a considerable success in London’s West End. Ayckbourn is debatably one of the funniest playwrights of recent times; bearing in mind this was written in the December of 1976.
All of the action in this, dare I say it, not entirely hilarious comedy takes place in what is the ballroom of a small, ramshackle hotel in the rural market town of Pendon. The room in question has been hired out by overly enthusiastic local committee head Ray (a spot-on characterization from Robert Daws) to plan a folk festival in the market town, for Ray has come across a book (later it appears of dubious authenticity) about the apparent massacre of agricultural workers (the ‘Pendon Twelve’) by the military… just for having demanded a pay rise. The rebels were headed by two men called Cockle and Brant who took a stand against the reactionary authoritarian local governing body and were eventually executed – if this sounds ostensibly too serious worry not – it is Ayckbourn after all. Ray wants to put a pageant on in the town square to re-enact this event. As is usual with Ayckbourn the play is more about character than plot.
The committee, as some may have guessed, is comprised of seven rather disparate characters verging (but not quite) on stereotypes. Politically-in-the-middle Ray would have to be the chairperson as is usual (or is it?). Then we have motivated Marxist Eric (an earnest – but near jokey Craig Gazey ) who sees all this as a means of a left-wing political rally juxtaposed against an old true blue Thatcherite (this was two years before the ‘Iron Lady’ was elected), in this case Helen (played with gusto by Deborah Grant). Eric and Helen obviously loathe each other on sight! The other committee members are reasonably well drawn although rather obvious: the easy-going clerical Donald (Mark Curry) and his old mum Audrey (Elizabeth Power) who doesn’t really know what’s going on, the eternally drunk local big-wig Laurence (Robert Duncan) who is the worst stereotype, and finally young Sophie (Gemma Oaten) who is ‘ensnared’ by Eric’s enthusiasm. They are later joined by Eric’s wife Philippa (Rhiannon Handy in a hilarious performance) and the three are soon sporting ‘John Cockle’ T-shirts, much to the chagrin of Helen at their next committee meeting.
As the meetings progress things can only get worse between Eric and Helen (a potted history then repeating itself – things don’t change) and the ever agreeable Ray is virtually in the middle of a war but obviously as a ‘rational bloke’ will be on the Redcoat side at the ‘debacle’ (which the dedicated Eric appears to be winning). Despairing Helen, seeing her historical pageant on the verge of being turned into an ultra left-wing rally, finds a last minute ally-cum-hero in the form of Tim (Harry Gostelow), the ultra right-wing brother of Sophie who naturally disapproves of his sister’s association with Eric. Tim sees this as WAR! Good god, the chap actually has a loaded gun “just in case things get nasty”. Ray really thinks it is all going a little bit too far and hopes it won’t come to that. Unfortunately the committee were unable to get a real horse as the local authority would not allow it, thus drunken Laurence (as the local big-wig) is forced to ‘ride into battle’ with a small broken hobby horse and promptly loses his balance lapsing into unconsciousness. Never mind, battle has commenced with old Audrey playing jingoistic ditties on the hotel piano, with Eric representing John Cockle (who he’s virtually become) and Tim representing the leader of the Governing Troops, the Earl of Dorset. Just who is the bigger nutter?
Admittedly we have an immense farce going on here in an absurd Battle Royale. But is it really that absurd? Is this the ridiculous ending of six months or so of committee meetings, hard work and costume making (costumes which obviously don’t fit properly)? Will this motley crew bring the committee to an abrupt end? We all know these ‘people’ and the inscrutable Ayckbourn is the one to draw them out, warts and all. Director Robin Herford is well at home here though the play will undoubtedly appeal to an older audience.
TEN TIMES TABLE runs until Saturday, Feb 8th (www.capitaltheatres.com)
(Photo by Pamela Raith)