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Eight plays, 10 characters, two actors. In Intimate Exchanges, Alan Ayckbourn, master theatrical craftsman, has produced a “ring cycle” that invests eight two-act plays with a choice of endings and interrelated, occasionally overlapping plots. The situations are inventive, mostly hilarious, but sometimes sad. The experience demands marathon attendance, but after seeing one play, the Ayckbourn drug is so potent it is impossible not to want more.
Some dismiss Ayckbourn as a facile writer of Brit-twit comedies. But in spite of many incredibly funny moments, it soon becomes apparent that Ayckbourn can dig below the comic surface to reveal a profound knowledge of human nature. This year’s Brits Off Broadway festival has brought this play series (first presented in 1982 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough) to a New York audience surprisingly hip on things British – particularly suburban, middle-class Britain.
Could it be that all those endless reruns of Are You Being Served? and As Time Goes By have familiarised US audiences sufficiently to enjoy jokes about tea and cricket? There is a wonderful riff on the latter delivered by the character Toby Teasdale, a prep-school headmaster whose sardonic sallies can erupt into arias of sarcastic invective. Deploring that “life has become one long losing battle”, he enumerates his reasons for turning to drink – number seven on his anathema list: “they’ve started this filthy floodlit cricket with cricketers wearing tin hats and advertisements for contraceptives on their boots”.
Ayckbourn also puts a pun in the mouth of Miles Coombes, dithery chairman of the school governors, in reference to a transit van with its queasy rider Gloria: sic transit Gloria.
The two brilliant actors are Claudia Elmhirst and Bill Champion, stalwarts of the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Elmhirst portrays characters as different as the flighty Rowena Coombes, Miles’s warm-hearted but promiscuous wife, who has brought sexual comfort to the local squash club; Celia, the sweet but high-strung, long-suffering wife of disillusioned Toby; and Sylvie, her juvenile home-help. Champion is no less versatile, switching in the plays’ three main male characters from Lionel Hepplewick, a local jack-of-no-trades handyman, to Miles and Toby.
There are also numerous “bit” parts requiring lightening costume changes, aided by off-stage sound effects, including the emptying of an entire garden shed. This provides the focal point for One Man Protest, where Miles finally reaches breaking point with feckless Rowena. If the situation is a bit exaggerated as he lingers shed-bound for days, it is no less poignant. And then there is Sylvie, who has an eye on Lionel and who, in Love in the Mist, encounters the great outdoors in a fling with Miles.
Of the four plays I saw, I was struck particularly by Elmhirst’s portrayal of Celia descending into a nervous breakdown. In Affairs In a Tent, she is serving the school governors a picnic tea on Field Day. Supplies fail to show up and she has nothing but two small jam tarts. “We can split the lemon curd one into 10. I’ll tell them it’s part of the economy measures,” says Toby, who hastens her crack-up.
Co-directors Ayckbourn, Tim Luscombe and Michael Holt have done wonders in adapting the original production played in the round to the current smaller, more conventional space. But if Ayckbourn’s skill in mixing humour and pathos in ingenious ways is remarkable, it ought to be. He has written about 70 plays before this. Tel +1 212 279 4200