Alan Ayckbourn is premiering his latest play — his 80th — in Scarborough this summer, the Yorkshire seaside town where all but two of that prodigious output have first seen the light of day, beginning in 1959 and still going strong now 57 years later. But Ayckbourn, who would once see every Scarborough play also transfer promptly to the West End, has not seen any of the new ones move there since the 2002 debacle of his Damsels in Distress trilogy, which came to the Duchess but whose performance schedule of all three plays being seen equally in rep was truncated to have one play give the lion's share of performances.
So we have become dependent instead on a diet of revivals to deliver our Ayckbourn hit (and hits), which in recent years has seen starry West End productions of Absurd Person Singular and A Chorus of Disapproval, as well as Season's Greetings and A Small Family Business at the National.
Now Bill Kenwright — who in 1973 offered the first UK tour of Ayckbourn's second West End hit How the Other Half Loves and previously also returned it to the West End in 1988 — now offers a third West End outing for the play, and I'd call it affectionate if the play wasn't so brutal underneath its comic surfaces, dealing as it does with unhappy, imploding marriages and infidelity.
But Ayckbourn — always the master of subtext and subterfuge— anchors the action by refracting it through the experiences of an entirely innocent couple who, used as unwitting alibis by both philandering parties, get caught in the cross-fire.
And Ayckbourn also carries off the singularly audacious feat of playing with both time and place, setting the action in two dining rooms shown simultaneously onstage, as dinner parties that take place on consecutive nights are played out at the same time — with the innocent couple as guests to both.
It's a phenomenally well-choreographed scene, superbly staged by veteran Ayckbourn director Alan Strachan who has himself previously directed this play twice. And Strachan's beautifully cast and played production is also a treat for the sublime performances of Nicholas Le Prevost and Jenny Seagrove,Tamzin Outhwaite and Jason Merrells, and Gillian Wright and Matthew Cottle as the three sets of couples.