Sir Alan Ayckbourn is a comic genius, and quite possibly our greatest living playwright. (You can keep Stoppard and Hare; for grit as well as wit, they don't come near to Ayckbourn). But for far too long he was dismissed as a mere comic boulevardier. In fact, as the current revival of Way Upstream (at Chichester Festival Theatre) and now Communicating Doors - both of them mid-career works from 1981 and 1994 respectively - demonstrate, he often has far darker currents beneath the surface that shine a piercing light on nastier human traits, including a bullying desire for control (in the first) and greed and murder (in the latter).
In Communicating Doors, a dying, elderly businessman seeks to clear his conscience by finally confessing to the crimes of his life that include the murder of two wives, and employs the services of a dominatrix prostitute (or "specialist sexual consultant", as she calls herself) to be the improbable messenger. When the businessman's chief henchman gets wind of this, he attempts to kill her - but she escapes via a hotel connecting door. In fact, it offers a portal that takes her backwards in time twenty years previously, when she finds herself in the same hotel room - and able to warn the second wife of her eventual fate. That second wife, in turn, enters the time machine and is herself transported to the same hotel room another twenty years previously, to find the first wife on her honeymoon night and warn her, too.
It sounds complicated but it isn't, as time periods are effortlessly shifted without so much as a change of scenery but just a swift rotation of the time machine door. As this time-travelling play shunts between different periods, we watch as the past can get rewritten into a new 2020 future (though that's pretty bleak when we get there, as London is divided into sectarian districts that are rioting against each other; Ayckbourn, writing this long before the London riots of a few years ago, was as ever uncommonly prescient).
This is a seriously brilliant and brilliantly funny play, and although Lindsay Posner's production takes time to warm up, once it starts motoring it really travels, not just in time but in energy. There were times I was crying with laughter; but other times I was held on the edge of my seat by its thriller-like suspense.
A stupendous cast that includes Ayckbourn regulars David Bamber and Matthew Cottle are joined by the wonderful Rachel Tucker -swapping musical roles she is best known for to be a very brilliant play actor - as the tart with more than a heart, Robert Portal as her client and Lucy Briggs-Owen and Imogen Stubbs as the two wives.
"Posner’s production isn’t perfect. The opening scene feels far too long, while there are occasional lags in pacing. But the strength of the premise and several delightful performances ensure a perpetual spark."
Ben Lawrence for The Daily Telegraph
"Rachel Tucker’s self-styled sexual consultant goes through a total transformation while Imogen Stubbs’s Ruella is a model of middle-class grit and Lucy Briggs-Owen’s Jessica is a genteel toff on whom the light slowly dawns."
Michael Billington for The Guardian