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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Private Fears in Public Places
Orange Tree Theatre Spring 2005

The closest Alan Ayckbourn's latest comedy is getting to London is a month in Richmond between its premiere in his north-of-England theatre and an Off-Broadway production this summer, and it is well worth the not-so-difficult trip to the suburbs.

For those Martians among us, Ayckbourn has for more than three decades been the master of the middle-class situation comedy with a sting in its tail, plays in which our laughter at his characters' silliness may suddenly be caught short by the discovery that they are feeling real pain or unhappiness.

This play fits right into the pattern, with a half-dozen seemingly unrelated characters who find their lives intersecting in ways that generate both laughter and the sympathetic shock of recognition.

An engaged couple looking for a flat are shown around by a mousy estate agent, but their relationship is an uneasy one, and the guy spends most of his day drinking in a hotel bar, whose bartender goes home each night to his monstrously demanding invalid father.

The carer he hires to help watch over his father works days at the estate office, where she confuses the agent we met a sentence back with her mix of sensuality and religious fervour.

Meanwhile, the agent's sister spends her evenings fruitlessly trying to meet men through lonely hearts ads, until she connects with one of the aforementioned.

Anyway, you get the idea. People keep encountering each other in unexpected circumstances or trying to interact while wrapped up in their own problems.

Ayckbourn is the acknowledged master of this kind of complicated plotting, and also of the kinds of cross-talk conversations in which the participants aren't quite on the same wavelength, to comic effect.

Throw in a couple of drunk scenes, some pornographic videotapes and at least one case of split personality, and there's a lot to laugh at.

But Ayckbourn can also introduce characters who seem familiar, even stereotypes, and then have them surprise us with unexpected complexities.

And so, while we're laughing at the corners his characters are walking and talking themselves into, we're also discovering that each of them is insecure, lonely and unhappy in ways that are too real for us to laugh at.

Not every playwright is a good director of his own work, but Ayckbourn's theatrical senses are finely honed, and he guides his cast through their paces with a deft hand and perfect pacing.

Not the least of his accomplishments, along with designer Pip Leckenby, is fitting five or six separate and clearly defined settings on the Orange Tree's small in-the-round stage without anybody bumping into the furniture and with the audience always clear where we are from scene to scene.

The actors, all Ayckbourn veterans, are all excellent, so I'll just list them: Melanie Gutteridge, Paul Kemp, Adrian McLoughlin, Alexandra Mathie, Sarah Moyle and Paul Thornley.

Richmond is only 15 minutes from Waterloo Station, and the Orange Tree's productions are almost always worth the trip. But the opportunity to one-up both New York and the West End by seeing Alan Ayckbourn's latest should make it irresistible.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Private Fears In Public Places - Orange Tree Theatre 2005
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