King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
This revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s 1976 meeting-based comedy begins well, the disparate characters all deftly drawn and the tedious nature of committee membership perfectly skewered. The time wasted on protocol (proposing and seconding a chairperson, for example, when there’s only one contender); the petty rivalries that develop into full-blown feuds; the horrible ‘conference’ rooms in once-grand hotels: all present and correct.
There are laughs a-plenty in the first act, albeit of the gentle variety. Robert Daws is entertaining as the pragmatic Ray. The town pageant, commemorating The Massacre of the Pendon Twelve, is his pet project and he’s ostensibly in charge. But it soon gets hi-jacked by Marxist ideologue and local history teacher Eric (Craig Gazey) – and Ray’s wife, Helen (Deborah Grant), is far from happy. Soon, the committee is split into two warring factions, and the re-enactment of the battle seems destined to be as bloody as the original.
The play is at its best when it’s focus is the pedantry: Mark Curry’s Donald is a stickler for the rules, and his adherence to irksome rituals is always amusing. Elizabeth Power plays Donald’s more-astute-than-she-appears mother, Audrey, who also draws more than her share of laughs. The political satire is less effective – not detailed enough, perhaps, to really say much of import, too superficial to have a real impact. Still, after the first act, we head out for our interval drinks intrigued to see how the rising tensions will be resolved.
But the second act is a little disappointing, the farcical elements too ‘polite,’ the pay-off too trifling to really satisfy. The relationship between Eric’s two lovers – his live-in partner, Phillipa (Rhiannon Handy), and fellow committee member, Sophie (Gemma Oaten) – is vapid and uninteresting, despite both women delivering good performances, so that I struggle to see what we’re supposed to take away from this strand of the story. And Harry Gostelow has a truly unenviable task, trying to make weirdly angry ex-soldier Tim (who’s called in to lead the resistance against Eric) even faintly believable. The revelations have all been over-signposted, so that the ridiculous ‘horse’ is entirely expected (and therefore not as funny as it might be) and the final bombshell robbed of any power.
Nevertheless, there is plenty to enjoy here, particularly if you’ve ever been subjected to the special kind of awfulness that only exists in an endless round of meetings…