BIRMINGHAM’S Crescent Theatre is celebrating its centenary with a challenging, joined-at-the-hip, double bill from that master of upper middleclass observation, Sir Alan Ayckbourn.
Entitled ‘House’ & ‘Garden’, it follows the lives of one cast of characters as they engage in various vignettes of verbal abuse and self-destruction in front of two different audiences – one in the main house in the production called ‘House’ and the other in the Ron Barber Studio in the ‘Garden’ production.
Ayckbourn wrote this diptych back in 1999, since when it has been rarely performed. One reason for this being its sheer logistical complexity – ie simultaneous action within the same ‘Curtain to Walkdown’ timeframe. Whilst the audiences remain static, the players have to flit from one venue to the other.
The second reason is that in truth, the duo of plays do not combine to make for our national treasure’s finest work. If you add the House and Garden dialogue together you have over four hours of froth with just maybe 20 minutes of grit.
Over the years the Crescent has always been up for a challenge – that’s why it has attracted so many talented performers into its ranks. So the choice of ‘House & Garden’ is, in my opinion, a brilliant one – regardless of how good the plays actually are.
In essence it’s a glorious opportunity for the company to showcase their skills of directing, design, prop mastery, wardrobe, lighting, sound and stage-management in one kaleidoscope. All technical skills are tested alongside a fleet-of-foot acting troupe who take no prisoners in this who’s best series of duologues and escapades. Theatre for the dominatrix and the masochist indeed and an outing I would have given much to be part of back in the day.
Of the two plays I found Garden the more enjoyable both visually and to engage with.
Colin Judges set made the studio seem an enormous space with all sorts of little hidey holes behind bushes and foliage, plus ponds, walled retreats and a floor painted so that you felt you were tripping across a meadow, carefully avoiding crushing the cowslips.
As ‘Garden’ gets bedecked in sideshows, fortune teller tents, a full-size Maypole and the multitude of paraphernalia involved in the assembly of an annual public fete, it becomes sensory experience. Brilliant sound and lighting designs from James Booth and Kevin Middleton means you almost feel and smell the rain when the ominous brooding storm clouds inevitably explode.
Keith Harris’ ‘House’ set comprises an extremely functional living room with rooms off – including a practical dining room and a large terrace which nicely linked the room to ‘Garden.’ It does though seem more new build than ancient pile splendor, lacking what should be an ‘old money’ feel.
On the acting front there is nary a weak link to be seen or heard, but there was some absolutely stellar performances.
David Baldwin and Rose Pardo Roques as the battling hosts Teddy and Trish Platt both capture the laid back polite delivery expected from Ayckbourn principals – never be rushed no matter what is said to or thrown at you – devil or angel – same ‘steady the buffs’ demeanor.
Conversely Colin Simmonds and Deronie Pettifer have carte blanche to go loony tunes. Simmonds as self-centered, domineering, Fete organising, boorish big-wig Barry and Pettifer as his dowdy, down but not quite out wife Lindy. The only love they share is the irony of their surname and as such the inevitability of comeuppance is wickedly heartwarming.
Also car-crashing their marriage are the Maces, Joanna and Giles, Joanna is having an affair with Teddy but when he breaks it off Jenny played by Jenny Thurston deliciously indulges in tipping her character across from being borderline daft to full-on barking mad. Nick Owenford gives the masterclass of the show with perfect Ayckbourn delivery plus adding his own take, building step by exasperating step a worm that will finally turn, albeit just by popping his head out a bit. Owenford’s one man Morris dancing is buffoonery at its most joyous..
Charles Hubbard develops his character more in ‘Garden’ as the Mace’s son Jake whilst the reverse is true of the Platt’s daughter Sally, Lola Hill – she has her best scene in House – a toe-curling angst meets its match encounter with James David Knapp as the suave been there, done it MP Gavin Ryng-Mayne.
Michaela Redican ticks the box as Izzie the Cook as does Chloe Potter as her sultry daughter Pearl. Rachel Cooper brings a touch of glamour as Fran Briggs – driver to the stars.
Stand-out performances amongst the many, are from Eduardo White and Paula Snow. White is magnificent as near silent movie star gardener Warn Coucher – his expressions and general gait are infectious. He is telepathic in expression and gives a textbook ‘less is more’ delivery. Sadly audiences who just go to see ‘House’ only get one short glimpse of him.
I have long been a fan of Snow’s charismatic talents and here she is my undisputed show-stealer both in ‘House’ and ‘Garden’ where she plays and excels as Lucille Cadeau, a French actress there to open the Fete. Snow’s timing is spotless, her machine gun French seductive. She’s ever watchable and in a nutshell – worth your ticket money on her own.
Liz Plumpton, Graeme Braidwood and Steph Urquhart have directed intelligently, making repetition not too tedious and handling the business and chaos scenes with alacrity and a vision born of experience. The trio can be forgiven for the occasional drop in production pace where the oncoming actor may not be in the wings but rather above, below or in-between.
Well done Crescent – you pulled a few rabbits out of the millinery for this one!
‘House’ and ‘Garden’ are on at The Crescent until Saturday, February 10. Click here for times, tickets and more information.