Perhaps, in writing his 52nd full-length produced play, the ever-prolific Brit scripter Alan Ayckbourn decided to incorporate as many theatrical styles as possible just to see what would happen. What starts out as a barbed, Noel Cowardesque romantic comedy gets downright sexy by the end of act one. By the middle of act two, matters get decidedly dark and guilt-ridden, with a touch of physical abuse thrown in. Both acts offer enough farcical elements to confuse the issue further. Helmer Berry Philips and his bravely cooperative four-member ensemble simply charge ahead with whatever comes next, but the collision of thematic agendas eventually defeats everyone.
The four solid members of society who populate the play certainly fit the Ayckbourn mold. Coldly self-sufficient Barbara (Stephanie Nash) had one brief, unpleasant encounter with coitus while a schoolgirl and is now quite content living in her small, antiseptic flat, which she has efficiently organized to be man-free. The only male within shouting distance is compulsively helpful Gilbert (Greg Mullavey), a postman who rents her downstairs flat but spends most of his time serving as a handyman. Barbara’s well-ordered existence gets torn asunder when her monumentally needy former boarding school pal, Nikki (Caitlyn Shannon), moves into Barbara’s vacant upstairs flat with her fiance, Hamish (James Tupper).
Ayckbourn abstains from his usual sleight-of-hand plot shenanigans in the first act. From the time Nikki and Hamish are introduced, it becomes perfectly clear where things are headed. Since Barbara and Hamish take such an immediate dislike to one another, it is absolutely predictable they will leap into bed together by the end of the act. Nikki is such a weepy wimp, she is a non-entity, leaving the amoral coast clear. The main thematic spice is provided by Gilbert, who turns out to be so obsessed with Barbara, he has painted a vast, nude portrait of her on his ceiling and is hoarding her cast-off clothes. He admits to Hamish, “Generally, I just look at them … generally.”
The second act is overburdened by the intense moral quagmire created by the coupling of Barbara and Hamish. They exude so much self-consuming guilt the play begins to resemble Zola’s “Therese Raquin.” Barbara and Hamish’s eventual emotional explosion into an outright physical brawl may be cathartic for them but does little to clarify the point all this angst is trying to make. Ayckbourn certainly gives short shrift to poor Nikki, who is reduced to wailing pitifully at the deceivers, “What about me?” The intensely infatuated Gilbert still supplies most of the comic relief as his fetish for “looking” at Barbara’s absconded duds moves to another level.
Despite the scripter’s meandering plot and the helmer’s failure to establish a strong subtextual throughline to buoy the proceedings, the ensemble rises to the task. Nash’s Barbara is quite believable as the cool martinet whose repressed passion gushes forward in a torrent as soon as she realizes Hamish wants her. For his part, Tupper carries off Hamish’s perplexed state of mind quite well, caught between the yin and yang of womanhood. Shannon is dead on as the perennial victim who wears failure like an outer skin. But stage and TV vet Mullavey turns in the most captivating portrayal, his Gilbert so relaxed and at home with all his bizarre idiosyncrasies.
The real star of this production is Barbara’s three-level dwelling, imaginatively designed by Don Llewellyn. Barbara’s flat is shown in its entirety while revealing only the bottom two feet (up to knee level or so) of the flat above, occupied by Nikki and Hamish. The setting also reveals the upper reaches of Gilbert’s basement place. It allows the audience’s imagination to run wild when sexually charged Barbara and Hamish first have at one another in the upper abode with only their legs visible. The miniscule glimpse the audience gets of Gilbert gleefully dabbling at his ceiling art is more than enough to get the picture.