With many playwrights seeking to draw attention by pushing characters toward extremes of behavior, what used to be called “light comedies” have fallen into disfavor. Michael Wynne is the exception. Like Mike Leigh’s work minus the malice, Wynne’s group portraits come with an intellectually unfashionable warmth. The slow burn of the exposition-heavy first act of “Canvas” suggests a play a draft away from readiness. Yet the proximity of his three fractious couples on a camping holiday causes friction for them and, finally, fun for audiences.
The focus is on Justine (Lucy Montgomery) and Alan (Dean Lennox Kelly), who arrive for a week’s holiday at a farm campsite. Having sent their largely unseen children to their offstage bunkbeds, they begin to unpack their cares with hints of unspoken woes when super-helpful (aka bossy) teacher Bridget (Sarah Hadland) pitches up trailing Rory, her embarrassed sidekick of a husband (Elliot Levey).
This initial bout of comedy coupledom is complemented by the visit of the third family, upmarket Amanda (Hattie Ladbury) and her lothario husband Alistair (Oliver Milburn), who within seconds is making a beeline for Justine.
Jonathan Fensom’s naturalistic set of the interior and exterior of a tent in a tree-fringed, muddy field is cunningly redressed for each family. Their juxtaposition is ideal, since Wynne is really relying on comfortable recognition through which to dissect middle-class life in crisis.
We are, in other words, in a stage sitcom, a sort of Ayckbourn Revisited not unlike his three contrasting couples in “Absurd Person Singular.” Here, however, we’re not in houses but in a campsite overseen by stressed Bronwyn (Lisa Palfrey). But Wynne’s writing lacks Ayckbourn’s dynamic disguising of necessary exposition. His handling of contrasting couples neatly sows the seeds of marital unease — none of these marriages are what they seem — but it takes too long for the drama to flourish.
Given the leisurely pacing of Angus Jackson’s production, the finely balanced cast take the opportunity to flesh out their characters without patronizing them. Wynne is unusual in his generosity with his characters, and only Alistair is more of a deus ex machina than a fully fledged role, a problem glossed over by Milburn’s amusing performance.
Levey’s beautifully controlled performance as Rory winningly unseats expectations. He’s playing a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown but elicits both laughter and sympathy by keeping a tight lid on overt display. Even his tears are swiftly swept away with smiles and near manic determination. There’s equal, compelling restraint from the excellent Ladbury in the penultimate scene, the climactic dinner party at which hostess Amanda almost cracks under the pressure.
That scene sets off the revelations that have been brewing in this slow-cooker of a play. Too few of the preceding ones generate true heat, but although the journey to the optimistic finale may be too predictable, “Canvas” is still amiable.