The Theatreguide.London Review
The Safari Party
Hampstead Theatre Spring 2003
The venerable fringe venue opens its lovely new theatre with Tim Firth's play, an enjoyable light comedy whose only significant flaw is that it is not better.
It's a bemused look at the social foibles of middle class middle England, with just the hint of a serious subtext, which is just another way of saying we are wholly within Alan Ayckbourn territory – and, indeed, the play began at Ayckbourn's Scarborough theatre and was directed by the master himself.
And that's the catch. So thoroughly does Firth operate within the genre that Ayckbourn staked out as his own that we can never escape the awareness that The Safari Party, whatever its merits, isn't as good as it would have been if Ayckbourn had written it.
That's unfair to Firth, I realise. Not everyone who writes blank verse has to be as good as Shakespeare. Not every gangster movie has to be another Godfather. But unfortunately, when you write in the shadow of a master, you invite comparisons that will rarely be to your advantage.
The mere fact that the play constantly reminds us of Ayckbourn - even the structure of three acts each set in a different home is an implicit homage to Absurd Person Singular - makes the play's limits more apparent than its strengths.
A safari party - the term in this context is new to me - is evidently a floating dinner, with appetisers at one home, main course at another, and so on. The participants in this one are a pair of brothers trying to keep their rundown farm afloat, a local antique dealer, and a nouveau riche businessman and his family, who have just moved to the country.
When an old kitchen table the boys flogged at a boot sale turns up in the businessman's home as a rare and expensive antique bought from the dealer, who invented an elaborate folk history for it, the stage is set for social affability to collapse comically.
But this is neither the first nor the last lie of the evening, nor the first or last eagerly-believed-in bit of totally fake local colour.
It turns out that the boys had created their own myth to sell the table in the first place, and when it's their turn to play host, they cover for their empty larder by turning some leftovers into a supposed traditional delicacy. Meanwhile, the businessman's daughter has invented a Portuguese boyfriend just to avoid working in the family shop.
As someone notes, it's very easy to back into telling a small lie, but very hard to get out again, and that classic farce situation is repeated with enough variants to keep the laughs coming, while also hinting at some home truths about some people's real hunger to be deceived.
But, as I said, where Ayckbourn would have caught us up short in mid-laughter with a shock of self-recognition, Firth never delves beyond the slightest hint of a serious subtext, and the play as a whole operates on the level of a superior TV sitcom.
Even the characters are familiar types - the vulgar and not-as-clever-as-he-thinks businessman, the social-climbing matron, the wise-cracking daughter, and so on - and as director, Firth has not been able to lead his cast beyond the most generic of characterisations and performances.
There's nothing wrong with superior sitcom, and if all you ask is a light evening's entertainment, the play delivers. But I suspect that there is just enough of a hint of how much more it could have been that your enjoyment will be shaded with a vague sense of opportunity missed.
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