A garden fete in the Lyttelton foyer provides the unofficial third part of “House” and “Garden,” the pairing of Alan Ayckbourn plays across two National Theater auditoria (and five hours) whose sheer audacity constitutes a theatrical event. (You try writing two plays to be performed simultaneously by exactly the same cast.) But long before the audience spills out onto an interior patch of “lawn,” indulging such quintessentially English pastimes as Bat the Rat and the Human Fruit Machine, theatergoers have been treated to a scarcely less enduring and equally English sight: Ayckbourn prompting explosions of laughter while chronicling a landscape of infidelity, perversion and pain that could not be more lethal.
Consider, for instance, the running gag in “House,” which is far and away the better of the dramatic duo — the plays were premiered in tandem last summer at Ayckbourn’s home theater in Scarborough — and ranks among the very fiercest and funniest of this dramatist’s nearly 60 (and climbing) works to date. Trish Platt (Jane Asher) is bustling about the country pile she shares with prosperous businessman-husband Teddy (David Haig) and 17-year-old daughter Sally (Charlie Hayes), preparing to host a lunch in advance of that day’s fete.
But while Teddy stands nearby, making the occasional face to attract attention, she has rendered him invisible. “Sooner or later, life pays you back,” says Trish, who tends frequently towards such apercus (the character is Ayckbourn’s most obvious surrogate), and the silent treatment is her way of paying Teddy back for his adulterous liaison with Joanna Mace (Sian Thomas), wife of neighboring doctor, Giles (Michael Siberry).
Adultery is an Ayckbourn constant, as are such mainstays of “House” and “Garden” as social embarrassment, drunkenness, hysteria and incomprehension, both within households and across cultures: Teddy has a rain-soaked and noisy fling with a visiting Gallic film star (a drolly fast-talking Zabou Breitman), whose every outpouring of French is met with affectionate, if uncomprehending, burbles in reply.
But just as “House” and “Garden” structurally extend this playwright in new directions, so that an exit in one play can anticipate the same character’s entrance into the other, so, too, does “House” push the envelope in terms of content. I can’t think of another Ayckbourn moment to rival the encounter in the second act of “House” between a visiting silver-haired novelist, Gavin Ryng-Mayne (“with a y,” he is forever announcing helpfully, as if every fresh acquaintance were intending to write him a letter), and the Platts’ pubescently curious daughter. Separated in age by some four decades, the two launch into an erotic fantasy which then gets scarily ruptured by Gavin, whom a silken Malcolm Sinclair — the lone standout in last year’s misbegotten West End “Hay Fever” — plays, matchlessly, in the performance of the evening. (Listen to him urge Sally to “sniff the wine, deeply” and feel the frisson.)
Those who catch both plays in whichever order — I saw “House” first, then “Garden” — may respond most to Ayckbourn’s controlling device, which replicates in dramatic terms his oft-quoted dictum that “we are all walk-ons in other people’s lives.” (Some jokes are, as well: a gag about the exact title of the French actress’s latest film bubbles up in one play only to land fully in the other.) That explains why the neighboring Maces, who are little more than incidental to “House,” command the lion’s share of “Garden” — to its detriment, frankly, insofar as neither a terminally dull Siberry nor a wildly over-the-top Thomas anywhere near approach their first-rate co-stars, Asher and Haig. At the same time, Asher, a redoubtable Ayckbourn veteran here in deliciously tart form, makes a scant first-act appearance in “Garden,” whereas most of “House” concerns her Ibsen-esque desire to bid a stultifying country life goodbye. Possessed of a lineage Hedda Gabler might recognize, she is an admiral’s daughter, even if it remains Trish’s lot to have her fate summed up with comic concision — “Marry a Platt, and that’s that.”
Of the principals, Teddy is the character best apportioned between the two plays, his thwarted political ambitions in “House” — Gavin is the thriller writer-cum-government apparatchik arrived from London to check him out — turned mostly to frenzied expressions of lust in and out of a tent in “Garden”: Haig does both portraits proud. While the Platts’ various domestic help careen between plays (it’s an 87-second trot, apparently, between the two NT stages), young Sally parries the advances of a more suitable suitor in the bespectacled Jake (a touching James Bradshaw), the Maces’ journalist-son, until some surprising declarations of love bring the two texts to what could best be described as a qualified hopeful conclusion.
Can the plays be seen separately? Not “Garden,” which depends for what little enjoyment it offers on filling in the gaps from having seen “House” — the initial meeting, for instance, between Gavin and Sally that turns so insidiously savage once the two return to designer Roger Glossop’s ever-so-gently fading manse; taken by itself, “Garden” would doubtlessly feel inconsequential and mightily padded. It’s part of a larger equation, not a lasting play of its own.
Happily, that’s not true of “House,” which always complements its partner while staking out separate terrain as a definable Ayckbourn document of nuptial (and other kinds of) woe. It’s not just the comedy this dramatist finds in chaos (“If you want to throw plates, could you please use the service with the gold rim,” requests Trish coolly) but the belly laugh inherent in life at its most bleak. (“You’re very cheerful,” Sally tells Jake near the end. His classic reply: “Yes, sorry.”) With “Garden,” Ayckbourn seems to be taking a leisurely if aimless stroll, while “House” allows a playwright both mirthful and ruthless to fully hit home.