How on earth did I get here? Tucked away in the Berkshire countryside on a tiny island in the Thames, The Mill is a gorgeous building. Parts of it date back almost to the Norman Conquest. The historical event, I mean, not the trio of plays also by Alan Ayckbourn. Even though it gave England its rich language, its class system and its sense of humour (the Normans basically created Alan Ayckbourn), round here everyone is determined there will be no further invasions. The reception for this conspicuous stranger is glacial. Thank goodness I am with a friend for once.
The play is set in 1977, a year I remember well because I started working for British Rail then. Seeing it at Sonning tonight is like stepping back in time in more ways than one. Someone was actually drinking gin and orange. The vibe is High Tory hard Brexit. Of the many memos we clearly didn’t get, the one about the dress code is most evident. Twin sets, blazers and Country Casuals are everything. Onstage and off, everybody here is white as white can be. Awkward. It is such a relief when the lights go down.
Apart from an understandable absence of cigarette-puffing throughout, 1977 is evoked very well indeed. Not only in the world conjured by a script written then, but in every element of design. Authentically terrible clothes made from fabrics that are even worse encapsulate each character before they speak.
All but one of the acts in this play take the form of excruciating committee meetings. These are held in the shabby ballroom of a large hotel in the little town of Pendon. The hotel’s glamour is fading faster than inflation is rising. It is a brilliant set courtesy of MICHAEL HOLT, depressing in its sticky corporate cheapness aspiring to grandeur. Just as well that the cast make the most of the sharp humour in ALAN AYCKBOURN’s pacy text.
You can sense how many ridiculous, stultifying committee meetings he must have sat through before being driven to write this. The accuracy of detail is savage. We never see anything being achieved. Much of the comedy comes from the endless interruptions, minutiae and pontificating.
The subjects of the play are class war and the worst of human nature. The subject of the meetings is: what shall the tableau vivant be for Pendon’s annual pageant next year? The committee reluctantly opts for a suggestion made by left-wing teacher Eric. They will re-enact a spurious Tolpuddlesque event half forgotten by local history. Its chief downtrodden martyr was one John Cockle; man of the soil, man of the people.
Of course Cockle and Eric come to represent what dates this play most of all. Not the British fear of unionised labour and its power but the fact that workers in trade unions had any tangible power at all. The rest of it is character driven. Ten Times Table is full of recognisable grotesques.
Chief among these is Helen, the snobbish and self-centred wife of committee chairman Ray. Gored by the disappointment of her withered marriage, she takes it out on working people everywhere. She is Margaret Thatcher in furs. You can see where this is heading in terms of the impending pageant but just how far will Helen take it?
In an outstanding performance by LOUISE JAMESON (an experienced time traveller herself by 1977) this spiteful monster rules the stage. Every frosty strop, every bitten off vowel is a TEDTalk in comic timing and total immersion in character. To this audience, Helen seems to be a heroine and role model.
The other performance of special note comes from ANTONY EDEN as Eric. This is a part that would be only too easy to play as a comic stereotype but Eden creates a believable if insensitive idealist instead. The warmth in his portrayal makes it plausible that two women would fall in love with him. More importantly it does not leave those women looking foolish. RHIANNON HANDY and SARAH LAWRIE bring great dignity and freshness to those markedly different women.
Inevitably there is a disintegrating middle-aged drunk. IAN TARGETT manages to make Lawrence movingly tragic as well as ludicrous. It is Lawrence’s growing incapability that opens the door to the one man who should never be allowed near a pageant involving weapons. As paranoid übergammon farmer Tim, NICK WARING is almost too convincingly horrible. Some of the comedy around this character would probably work better if his threatening personality were toned down a bit.
Saddled with a clichéd part -she’s an old lady taking the minutes with very poor hearing and eyesight- ELIZABETH POWER still gives a wonderfully funny performance. Her Audrey is a red hot pianist too and this is where her comedy shines brightest. It is such a shame that this character was already old hat when the play was new. A shame for Power and a shame for the play because otherwise it is so smartly written.
Ayckbourn packs in the layers of cause and effect with skilful economy. This is not a farce but it borrows the levels of tension and expectation farce demands. Reality is heightened just enough to be funny without affecting the truth of the characters. And all of the funniest horse-related moments I have ever seen in theatre are gathered in this production. It runs until 22nd September. Go and see it – it’s a riot. But you will be travelling back into history in order to do so. Adjust your appearance and behaviour accordingly.
Written by: Alan Ayckbourn
Directed by: Robin Herford
James Dance (Max)
Antony Eden (Eric)
Stuart Fox (Ray)
Rhiannon Handy (Philippa)
Louise Jameson (Helen)
Sarah Lawrie (Sophie)
Ben Porter (Donald)
Elizabeth Power (Audrey)
Ian Targett (Lawrence)
Nick Waring (Tim)