The casting of this revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s 1984 comedy furnishes a clutch of in-jokes for the theatre cognoscenti. When widower Guy Jones joins the local am-dram production of The Beggar’s Opera, he is advised, “Use your natural accent; it’s what I do” by old stager Jarvis Huntley-Pike. But Pike is played by Barrie Rutter, founding director of Northern Broadsides – a company that exists to play the classics in a Yorkshire accent. Later, when Jones is having a fraught conversation with his lover – one of his lovers – during a technical rehearsal, the pair are followed around the stage by bad lighting states and the voice of the director is heard to say, “He’d have to be a midget [to be lit properly by it]”. Nigel Harman, who plays Jones, was last seen in the West End shuffling around on his knees as the villainous shorthouse Lord Farquaad in Shrek – The Musical. Even musical director Mr Ames is played by that titan of the orchestra pit Steven Edis.
But how compelling its appeal may prove beyond such initiates is moot. The world outside the Pendon Amateur Light Operatic Society, with its insider deals, clandestine pay-offs and business closures, is once again familiar 28 years on. Ayckbourn skilfully interweaves Guy’s rise and fall both professionally and among the company’s female contingent with extracts from John Gay’s original work. Above all, the role of director Dafydd ap Llewellyn is a fine fit with Rob Brydon’s natural performance persona as an affable, unspectacular Welsh chap who periodically makes ill-judged remarks.
However, unspectacular-ness is at the core of the play. Protagonist Guy is one of those Ayckbourn linchpins who are not doers themselves, but quiet, self-effacing types to whom things ineluctably happen. Director Trevor Nunn is, as ever, skilled at unfolding events at more or less their natural pace, but in this case, that isn’t a particularly dramatic one. We sympathise with Guy and smile at his encounters, but feel nothing keener about him, any of his fellows or the society in which they all move. It is this keenness that makes Ayckbourn so much more than the boulevardier of popular myth. Alas, it is here largely absent – along with any sense of urgency.