Before the days of internet chat and online dating services, the average person might well have sought the comfort of strangers by getting involved in a pastime or hobby which would provide contact with other human beings. For some, that hobby could well have been amateur dramatics, as is the case with the central character in this play by prolific writer Alan Ayckbourn.
'A Chorus of Disapproval' starts with the closing moments of the last performance of John Gay's ballad opera 'The Beggar's Opera' as performed by Palos – the Pendon Amateur Light Operatic Society. Things seem tense, even though the show seems to have been a success. To understand the situation we are taken back in time to the rehearsals which preceded the performance.
Guy Jones (played by Nigel Harman) finds himself lonely one year after the death of his wife. He fetches up at the theatre where Palos rehearse for an audition. But when he meets director Dafydd, he can hardly get a note in edgeways as Dafydd sings Guy's audition song himself – in Welsh. Nonetheless, Guy is accepted into the society and given a small part in the upcoming production. The rest of the operatic society is made up of a disparate bunch of characters including a barmaid, a dodgy builder and a married couple who spend their spare time swapping partners and who lure the unsuspecting Guy to their home for extra-marital rehearsals. And the sexual and romantic angle is further complicated when Guy and Dafydd's wife, Hannah, start an affair.
Rob Brydon makes his West End debut here as Palos's harassed director, Dafydd ap Llewellyn. Beset by problems on all sides of the dramatic arena, Daffyd is a good-natured, sociable type who tries to paper over the frustrations arising from conflicts with his cast. However, he shows he can blow a fuse when the strain gets too much, and he also has marital issues which one suspects drives him to escape the family home each night. Nigel Harman is well-cast as the naive but honest Guy who finds himself inadvertently entangled in a dodgy land deal, and romantically involved with two female members of the society. The rest of the large cast provide excellent support and cope admirably with the demands of having to play amateur thespians – not an easy task by any means, and all well-controlled by director Trevor Nunn.
First performed in 1984 and now almost entering middle age, 'A Chorus of Disapproval' feels a little dated, even if the play is set (as it seems to be) in the same era. Given the potential in the situation, characters and plot, this could have been a truly hilarious comedy. In fact it is billed on the show's website as a 'riotous' comedy, but it falls far short of that description. There are some good one-liners, for example, when Dafydd says of his spouse “I call her my swiss army wife … with a blade missing”. And there are very funny situations, especially when the unsuspecting Guy is lured to Fay and Ian's home for a sex party, when he thinks he is merely invited to dinner. That said, it certainly is not the kind of comedy where you will be rolling in the aisles or leaving the theatre with an aching stomach (though a gentleman sitting behind me certainly found it more amusing than I did). But then I am not so sure that is what Alan Ayckbourn had in mind because this is a play as much about the characters and their motivations as anything else, and the ending is, quite intentionally, rather sad.
"Alan Ayckbourn's brilliantly intricate comedy...sits uneasily in the West End. It demands a company, a sense of community and an understanding of the amateur operatic tradition – none of which it gets in Trevor Nunn's erratically cast and uncharacteristically awkward production."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Nunn’s somewhat ponderous staging...In great Ayckbourn shows there is always at least one scene when I find myself physically helpless with laughter but this time, though I laughed a lot, there was no such moment of transcendent comic bliss."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph