A backstager about the shenanigans amid members of a local amateur operatic company attempting to stage a production of “The Beggar’s Opera,” Alan Ayckbourn’s 1984 “A Chorus of Disapproval” sits somewhere between his own “The Norman Conquests” and Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off.” Sadly, in Trevor Nunn’s overly earnest, heavy-handed revival it’s neither as dramatically effective nor as funny as either of them.
Everything revolves around shy, thirtysomething widower Guy Jones (Nigel Harman). Not only is he the newest arrival in this small-town operatic group, he’s handsome enough for all the women to take a shine to him. And, as various unseen calamities befall members of the cast of the impending production, Guy ascends the ladder to the leading role.
In basic shape, it’s not unlike “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.” But instead of everything being the result of one man’s driving ambition, the potentially amusing rise of Ayckbourn’s hero is unengineered. Hapless Guy keeps being promoted as a result of everyone else’s selfish needs.
Many of those are sexual. Guy finds himself bedded by not just vampish Fay (Daisy Beaumont) but, more crucially, Hannah (nicely judged Ashley Jensen), the neglected wife of the group’s overweening director Dafydd (Rob Brydon).
An audience favorite due to his huge TV career as stand-up and comedy performer largely of his own scripts, Brydon’s performance is problematic. As if determined to prove himself an actor of someone else’s material, he presents Dafydd as “a character.” Brydon, himself Welsh, here sports a ludicrously strenuous Welsh accent. To match that, he slows his delivery and over-elaborates still further with an equally labored physical performance.
Dafydd is a typically blind Ayckbourn husband, comically insensitive to the needs of his more sympathetic wife. Amusing though this initially proves, there should be a pay-off in the pathos he evokes when he discovers he has been cuckolded. But Brydon’s performance is so broad that although the writing shows Dafydd’s pain at the play’s climax, the performance doesn’t elicit true sympathy.
The play, set firmly in 1984 when it was written due to the marital attitudes on display, now has a “period” feel when once it was contemporary. But instead of fleshing that out, Nunn has encouraged his actors to follow Brydon’s lead and exaggerate characterizations into distancing caricature. The clashes between them should be funny, but everything feels too labored. Engaging subtlety is lost and laughs drain away because audiences know what’s coming and it’s far too slow in arriving.
Susan Tracy is amusingly arch as Rebecca, the operatic society’s grande dame. But when Rebecca observes that Dafydd always hides her behind a piece of the set because she’s such a poor actor, the line doesn’t land. That’s not Tracy’s fault. It’s a result of Nunn having chosen to make every one of the society members look like bad actors.
That decision also weakens Ayckbourn’s dovetailing of his own plot with that of the show-within-the-show. Since everyone in the society looks amateur in the worst sense, it’s impossible to take their work in “The Beggar’s Opera” seriously. Ultimately, despite striving so very hard for poignancy, the production is more notable for its effort than its achievement.