West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Opened 7 April, 1999

The second of Alan Dossor's three "routes" through Alan Ayckbourn's Intimate Exchanges group of plays (in which each scene is written with two options of following scene, thus generating sixteen possible endings) raises once again one of the principal issues in staging multiple-play works: whether to labour at suggesting a character's entire range within the bounds of a single constituent play, or to run the risk of disjunctions in character from play to play. However, the risk is smaller when, as here, the plays are presented in consecutive runs rather than in repertoire (as, for instance, with Clwyd Theatr Cymru's recent revival of Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests), since comparisons will be less fresh in the audience's minds.

Dossor and his two actors, in any case, tread the line well. Headmaster's wife Celia is a little more self-assured here than in Affairs In A Tent, which I reviewed last month; her husband's best friend Miles, with whom Celia almost begins an affair in this version, now has more space to reveal himself as well-meaning and sensitive though emotionally purblind. Even in the final scene, Easter Greetings set five years after the preceding action the colder, harder Celia is more recognisably the same person than in the corresponding scene of the previous production.

The territory is that familiar ground which Ayckbourn never wears out: the impossibility of true togetherness, or even accurate communication. If his characters were Channel tunnellers starting from opposite ends, they might pass close by one another but would never meet in the middle; the question of whether couple-relationships in his plays "work" is meaningless it is simply a matter of whether his characters have either the dedication or the apathy to continue in them regardless.

Actor Ken Bradshaw has the easier time of it in this episode, playing a mere two roles: Miles and Celia's husband Toby (still a close relative of the late John Wells's favourite character type). Andrina Carroll, by contrast, notches up five separate characters, plus a sixth heard offstage; she gives them distinct sets of manners and mannerisms, but is hard pressed to vary her voice to match. In some ways, although the characters profess hatred of each other, Carroll's Rowena Miles's wife is simply the suppressed side of Celia's personality, brazen without descending into vulgarity. Once again she steals her scenes as the elderly, tweedy Valkyrie Irene Pridworthy, dressed here in an astoundingly shapeless set of clothes which manage to clash riotously even by the standards of golfing couture. Ultimately the company pretty much succeed in squaring the circle so that, while spectators gain by seeing all the plays, they do not palpably lose out by watching just one as a stand-alone piece

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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