Tuesday, December 18, 2012

'A Chorus of Disapproval' at the Harold Pinter Theatre, 17th December 2012

If you were to ponder who to cast as a middle-aged slightly eccentric, loveable and Welsh local theatre director, I suspect one of the top names on your list would be Rob Brydon.  He sits squarely in the middle of this production of Alan Ayckbourn's multi-layered comedic jab at Little England.  Brydon's character Dafydd, is a solicitor who directs the local light operatic society, a job which seems to occupy nearly all of his time and thought.  He's sick of the same old light opera cliches, and wants to push the boat out a bit and put on a production of John Gay's 'The Beggar's Opera'. Unfortunately he has to contend with a swirling maelstrom of petty rivalries among his cast of amateurs.  Into this tricky situation comes Guy (Nigel Harmon), a lonely, introverted widower who begins to climb up to the top of the bill, initially being cast as the one line character 'Crook Fingered Jack' but eventually becoming the lead, 'Macheath'.  But while he conquers the world of the stage, he's also conquering the wives of the men in the village.

This setup allows Ayckbourn to cleverly mirror the dashing and theatrical highwaymen n' whores world of Macheath and 'The Beggar's Opera' with the dowdy, kitchen sink world of village life in England.  The play begins with the climax of the play, throwing us into the deep waters of 18th century operatics with the attendant petticoats and tricorn hats. I wasn't familiar with Ayckbourn's play before this, and frankly, my heart sank a little bit when I saw this.  For a moment I wondered whether I'd walked into the wrong play.  The posters had Rob Brydon with a cardigan on them, and he was, apparently nowhere to be seen.  But soon, he walked on stage and began making that slightly cheesy "thank-you to everyone" speech.  Weirdly, structuring the play like this means that we begin the play with a big round of applause for everyone, which is at least novel.

Our cast
But then the stage lights go down, and Guy is left on stage.  He changes out of his glamourous scarlet costume, and into a dowdy M&S beige outfit, and time rewinds to three months earlier when Guy first walked through the door to audition for a part.  This device neatly sidesteps some of the cliche inherent in a drama about a small-scale drama production.  For one, we know from the beginning that it's going to be a roaring success, and that Guy will eventually play a damn good Macheath.  So we're primed to ignore any on-stage tension about whether the play will go ahead or not.  What generates the drama is the journey rather than the destination, the evolving interactions and relationships between this group of characters, with a focus on how they orbit around the central character of Guy.

Guy might be the protagonist, but in this production the audience's attention and affection is entirely with Rob Brydon's Dafydd.  The role doesn't see Brydon stretching himself particularly far, and if I hadn't have known better I might have assumed it'd been written for him (I suspect that Brydon wanted to make a West End stage debut, and they found a play suitable for him).  If there ever was a man to deliver slightly exasperated dialogue in a strong Welsh accent it'd be Brydon.  The tragedy of the character is the lack of respect he has from those around him. Nominally he's in charge of this company and appears to be a perfectly competent director.  The problems arise when it quickly becomes apparent that while this is a passion for him, it's far less serious for the cast, who use the production as an excuse to either relieve boredom, gossip or play mind games with each other.  

Matthew Cottle as Ted, and Rob Brydon as Dafydd
There is an essential sadness to Dafydd, shown through the occasional self aware flickers he has of the ridiculousness of his situation.  In perhaps his most melancholy moment, he tells Guy that he spends all his time worrying about the problems of the production, which are irrelevant outside the theatre and no time worrying about the very real and serious problems that face him "out there, in the real world".  This faint strain of misery hidden underneath an upbeat and friendly mask is visible in all Brydon's best dramatic work, seen most easily in 'Gavin and Stacey', and subtly but effectively in 'The Trip'.

While Brydon's characters may be masking an underlying sadness, the mask is at least a hilarious one.  He's by far the funniest thing on stage here, whether he's interrupting Guy's audition to sing loudly in Welsh, fussing about with the lighting manager while unbeknownst to him his marriage disintegrates under the very spotlight he's testing or simply rolling around on the floor moaning after being kicked in the bollocks.  Brydon is the selling point of the show, and all eyes are quite rightfully on him when he's on stage.  

Nigel Harmon's Guy
This is an ensemble piece though and Brydon is just a cog in a larger machine, one geared around Nigel Harmon's Guy.  Guy is an extremely peculiarly played character, a lothario who appears to have no real interest in women or sleeping with them, yet begins screwing his way through most of the female cast.  He's a softly spoken sphinx, a depressed enigma in beige slacks and inexplicably the women go crazy for him.  I can only guess that the fact that these women so readily drop their knickers for him is an indictment of the boredom of small-town marriage life, and the hunger for something, anything new.

Of course, there is also the less charitable interpretation that Harmon's performance is missing the mark entirely. I'm not sure how the role is played in other productions, but it is almost impossible to sympathise or even to like Guy, who is exasperating  in his naivety and nebbishness.  With this black hole of a personality squatting in the centre, the structure of the play feels deformed and we're alienated from everyone on stage except Brydon.

Georgia Brown as Bridget
The rest of the cast puts in some spirited performances, especially Georgia Brown as the vaguely punky, sullen stage manager Bridget.  All of the other characters slot easily into this small world, happily occupying societal roles that seem decided in advance.  Bridget is the only one that seems to bristle under the petty gossip and small-minded misogynistic Conservativism that flows through the town.  Ashley Jensen, as Dafydd's frustrated and miserable wife Hannah would like to rebel against this life of repairing socks and general housewifery, but tragically lacks the imagination to truly break free, and settles for attaching herself, limpetlike, to the boring Guy.  You find yourself wondering exactly how she sees a life with Guy as an improvement over life with Dafydd, who at least seems like a kind man.

The other characters don't have quite such a strong focus, and while everyone on stage is a competent performer there is only so much you can do characters who seem to be wandering archetypes, the same old stereotypes you'd find cropping up in every small-town English comedic drama from here to eternity.  

Rob Brydon just about keeps the production's head above water, and supplies the vast majority of the laughs.  Even so, this is a comedy that's ponderous and melancholy rather than fast-paced and quick witted.  No-one seems to move with any kind of urgency and it's difficult to detect that anyone particularly cares about their fate.  At times it feels like these characters have been sedated, that this English life has sapped them of any capacity for true passion and any we do detect is merely them going through the motions, a cast playing not very good actors who are rubbish off as well as on stage.  As a cynical indictment of the vanity, pettiness, greed and mindless lust of Little England it's viciously successful.  As an entertaining way to spend nearly three hours, not so much.

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