Friday, 09 September 2016

Consuming Passions

BOGOF with Alan Ayckbourn’s two interlinked plays set in restaurants – plus free soup and sandwiches

Written by Georgina Brown
Georgina-Brown-colour-176Sir Alan Ayckbourn is a playwriting phenomenon. He is 77 and still hard at it. His latest play, consuming passions, is actually two for the price of one, a pair of ingeniously interlinked playlets bursting with all his characteristic invention, originality and surprise.

Designed for a tiny pop-up stage at one end of the cafe of the wonderful stephen Joseph theatre, the audience is served soup (to be consumed before the start so that there are no clanking spoons) and then sandwiches (to be nibbled during the play). While we are consuming, we are watching characters variously consumed by intemperate passions.

The settings for both playlets are also restaurants. In the first play, premonitions, middle-aged Melanie (Louise Shuttleworth) is in an undistinguished clapham bistro waiting for her husband, who, as her hilariously outspoken waiter keeps reminding her, probably won’t show up, again. Melanie’s irritation escalates when a couple park themselves at her table. They are evidently in disguise; the woman, in a headscarf, sunglasses and mac, clearly fancies herself as a Hitchcock blonde, and the dishy, flashy bloke named Freddie, who can barely keep his hands off her, is wearing a ridiculous knitted hat.

They are served by a waiter identical to Melanie’s but for his moustache and smarmy, supercilious manner. Weirdly, however, they are unaware of Melanie, in spite of her waspish interjections, and melanie’s waiter can’t see them and thinks she is crazy. But as the adulterous pair discuss their Hitchcockian plan to push the blonde’s husband off a cliff, Melanie suddenly recognises the woman and her intended victim, before becoming hysterical and being carted off by the waiter.

In the second half, repercussions, Melanie bursts into a smart panelled restaurant to warn the murderee, her odiously flash former boss Cedric (leigh symonds doubles brilliantly as the hilarious waiter) of the plan to bump him off. But it appears that Melanie has form. Cedric recalls the time when she insisted that Jesus was working the photocopier. And yet, several things she says clearly rattle him: isn’t his wife’s personal trainer called Freddie? And might she be the ‘gold-digging little whore’ that Melanie insists she is?

As ever, Ayckbourn expertly keeps two dramatic balls simultaneously in the air: the possibility that this is happening for real, and the alternative view, that this is the hallucination of a sad and lonely middle-aged woman overwhelmed by her sense of her invisibility. Louise Shuttleworth, lurching brilliantly between cool control and fraying bonkersness, makes both possibilities completely plausible.

Just as in his very fine Woman In Mind, Ayckbourn skewers one woman’s life of quiet desperation. Funny, gripping and performed with gusto, it may be short, but it’s a tasty and surprisingly satisfying dramatic morsel.

Until 8 October at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Westborough, Scarborough: 01723-370541,

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