Three new Alan Ayckbourn comedies had their West End debut at the Duchess Theatre today. The three comedies have been titled “Damsels in Distress: An Ayckbourn trilogy” (Gameplan; Flatspin; Roleplay), yet this is not a trilogy in the conventional sense. The only connection between each play is the fact that they were written for the same combination of actors, three men and four women, and they use the same set. The story behind each comedy finds the leading women caught in a web of misfortune and so the title “Damsels in Distress”.
When Lynette Saxon’s (Jacqueline King) dot.com company goes bust her husband deserts her and she is left struggling to pay for her Riverside apartment in the Docklands. Her teenage daughter Sorrel (Saskia Butler) is appalled at the thought of having to move home and so comes up with an improper scheme for raising money, unfortunately she has to rely upon her clueless friend Kelly (Alison Pargeter). Eventually, the police arrive at the apartment asking questions.
The laughter runs thick and fast throughout this delightful play. Saskia Butler gives a great performance as the manipulative teenager Sorrel who persuades her gullible friend Kelly to help her raise money. Her show of confidence does not smother the panic one can sense beginning to simmer within her as she instigates her money making scheme. However, the star of the show is most definitely Alison Pargeter as Kelly, she acts the role of the bungling, ineffective, gormless schoolgirl with perfect timing and delivery. It is worth going to see this show just to watch her performance. Beth Tuckey is also good as the po-faced Bible quoting police officer
Out of work young actress Rosie Seymore (Alison Pargeter) is given the temporary position of caretaker for a Riverside apartment whilst the mysterious owner is away. Whilst watering the plants the neighbour Sam (Bill Champion) calls around to say hello, mistaking Rosie for his absent neighbour. Hapless Rosie, desperate for some male company, decides to pass herself off as the owner of the flat with unforeseen consequences.
Preparing a meal of gnocchi takes on other meanings as the flirtatious Rosie helps Sam to roll out sausage shapes of pasta. The two are soon groping intensely on the kitchen table only to be interrupted by far more than just the telephone!
Computer nerd Justin Lazenby (Bill Champion) and his girlfriend Julie-Ann Dobson (Saskia Butler) are having a selective dinner party for both their parents at his riverside apartment in order to announce their engagement.
The PMT stressed Julie-Ann wants everything to be perfect for her prim and proper parents and becomes obsessed about clean cutlery and missing forks. Discovering a dessert fork missing she rushes out of the flat in a whirlwind of panic hoping to purchase a new one before her parents arrive. However, when a woman falls on to their balcony from four floors above, the odd couple have far more than cutlery to worry about.
The fallen woman is Paige Petite (Alison Pargeter) who is desperate to escape her boyfriend, violent boxing promoter Rudy Raven, who was having her held captive by one of his thugs, Mickey Rale (Tim Faraday). It is not long before Mickey comes looking for Paige and the uninvited duo impose themselves for the evening upon Justin and Julie-Annes' hospitality.
Add to this mixture, Justine’s drunken mother Arabella (Jacqueline King) and Julie-Ann’s bigoted parents and you have a typical Alan Ayckbourn blend of subterfuge and disarray.
Jacqueline King gives a phenomenal performance as Justin’s drunken, snobbish mother. Her outrageous remarks, slow body movements and obvious love affair with alcohol lead to a spell binding performance that rightly deserved the applause she received whenever she left the stage. Just watching her retrieve her handbag from the floor had the audience in stitches.
Alan Acykbourn is a master of situation comedy writing and this trilogy proves that he is still at the pinnacle of his career. The plot for each comedy is fresh and exciting and it is near impossible to predict what will happen from one scene to the next. Yet, despite the fast moving storylines, the eccentricities of some of the characters, and the fast shooting witty one-liners, there is a vein of reality that runs throughout his plays. The characters are three-dimensional and their fears and foibles are recognisable, it is only the unfortunate circumstances that they find themselves embroiled in that exaggerate them to comical heights.
Whilst all three comedies are good, there is no doubt in my mind that GamePlan is the jewel of the piece.
The company of seven actors that perform these plays have been dubbed by one critic as “the Magnificent Seven” (Jacqueline King, Saskia Butler, Alison Pargeter, Beth Tuckey, Robert Austin, Tim Faraday and Bill Champion ), and rightly so. They are perfect for the roles and their performances cannot be faulted.
Having the opportunity to see the same actors portray completely different characters on the same set proves, yet again, what marvellous talent we have in British Theatre. I expected to see the actors carry over some of the traits and persona of their characters from one play into another. I was delighted to see that his did not happen and each character was given a unique personality.
The two young actors Saskia Butler and Alison Pargeter are exceptional. They are both sure to have successful careers ahead of them, especially Alison Pargeter who shows great diversity in her performance. To go from the silly and clueless teenage schoolgirl Kelly, to the seductive, self-assured street-wise young woman Paige Petite takes great talent, and she does it with apparent effortlessness.
All three of these plays are worth seeing, however if you can only get to see one then make sure it is GamePlan.
What other critics had to say.....
CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "This wonderful company ensures you are never bored for a moment. I'd warmly recommend the complete trilogy, but if you can manage only one, make it RolePlay. " MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "The trilogy also proves that Ayckbourn, aside from being a matchless comic observer, is also a great director of actors " RACHEL HALLIBURTON for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "This comedy-of-lack-of-manners is too caricatured for overall satisfaction, in a day where an old dog performs both ancient and new tricks with varying success." LUCY POWELL for TIME OUT says, "The action is always superbly paced...The trouble is that the drama is so painfully short of substance" PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, The zest of the company is unflagging and, with Alison Pargeter's triple whammy, a comic star is born." JOHN THAXTER for THE STAGE says, "It would be hard to over-praise Ayckbourn's own slick direction and especially his outstanding acting ensemble but the whole seems less than the sum of their individual parts."
External links to full reviews from newspapers
A review of Flatspin
by Tom Keatinge
Flatspin is one of a trilogy entitled Damsels in Distress by prolific playwright Alan Ayckbourn, currently playing at the Duchess Theatre. The trio of plays are linked not by plot, but by location, set as they all are in a stylish Docklands flat in London. Flatspin is a terrific comedic cocktail of mistaken identity, caricature and good old end-of-pier innuendo humour that Ayckbourn has so brilliantly employed in many of his more than sixty plays.
Rosie Seymore (Alison Pargeter) is an actor, desperately searching and hoping for the big break that will launch her, but in the meantime doing menial jobs inside and outside the profession, and not averse to some fun along the way. Flatspin finds her standing in for her uncle, the janitor of a smart residential warehouse conversion, when he is incapacitated by a car accident. Having been shown the ropes by the agent, Annete Sefton-Wilcox, hysterically portrayed by Beth Tuckey, she is left to her own devices. As she busys herself with her chores, a knock at the door heralds the arrival of the handsome next door neighbour Sam Berryman (Bill Champion). Before Rosie knows what she is doing, she has inadvertently given the impression that the flat is hers and has invited Sam round to cook dinner that evening. Inevitably drink (including a marvellous incident with Zadok the Priest), games with phallic pastry in the kitchen, and low cut tops lead to the bedroom . . . or at least lead Rosie to the bedroom, before her whole world is turned upside down. Enter secret agents, drugs couriers and a brilliantly entertaining performance by Tim Faraday as the hopelessly vain ex-SAS bodyguard. What has this all got to do with gnocchi and Val Doonican? Well you might ask!
Flatspin is hardly subtle, and at times even the most charitable suspension of belief cannot cope, but it is fast moving, with humour aplenty and twists and turns that keep the audience guessing. This is all the more powerful as the cast are a terrifically strong ensemble that so obviously love having the chance to work in rep like this. On balance though, despite some hugely entertaining touches, Flatspin drags painfully at times, particularly towards the end of Scene II and does not quite live up to what we have come to expect of Mr Ayckbourn.