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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Taking Steps
Orange Tree Theatre     Spring 2010

Alan Ayckbourn's 1980 farce contains all the elements we have come to expect from this master of subtly dark comedy - loads of laughs, an ingenious trick of structure or staging, and a hint of the unacknowledged pathos beneath the veneer of middle class suburbia.

And this revival, directed by the playwright in the in-the-round form for which it was written, is just about as good as it could get.

The plot defies summary. Suffice to say that the play is set on three floors of a country house, all of course represented by the same set, so that actors standing next to each other may be playing characters in different rooms.

There's a lot of throwaway fun there as, for example, someone looks upward in response to a noise made right next to him.

Anyway, there are several characters, not all of whom are aware of the others' presence in the house, who for various reasons find themselves entering one level just as someone else is leaving, or ending up in the same room (or bed) unexpectedly.

One character is convinced the house is haunted, two separate notes are either unread or misinterpreted, two people are thought to have attempted suicide (generating unnecessary panic), and just about everyone spends just about all the play without the vaguest idea of what is happening.

And since we do know what is happening, who wrote which note and who is in what room, we can - and do - enjoy it all immensely.

And perhaps it is only in the rare quiet moment that we have time to notice that one character is seriously on his way to alcoholism, that another is on the edge of bankruptcy, that both of the women in the play feel trapped and smothered by the men who claim to love them, and that the dimness of a couple of the men borders on culpable insensitivity.

Most writers of farce get their laughs by reducing their characters to single-dimensional puppets whose emotions we don't care about; it is Ayckbourn's genius to make us laugh while also being aware of the characters' capacity for real pain.

As playwright, Ayckbourn might rely for laughs on too many characters with stammers, slow thinking or mental blocks that keep them from being able to accomplish coherent sentences, and as director he might be a bit too leisurely, especially in the setting-up-the-situation first act, which could use more snap than it has.

The hard-working and utterly delightful cast is lead by Michael Simkins as the alcoholic, Anna Francolini as his self-absorbed wife, Stephen Beckett as one of Ayckbourn's signature slow-thinking dimwits and Matthew Cottle as a totally-out-of-his-depth outsider.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Taking Steps - Orange Tree Theatre 2010
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