Theatre in Wales

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Classy Cast in not so Classic Comedy

At Theatr Clwyd

Theatr Clwyd Cymru- Taking Steps , Emlyn Williams Theatre, Theatr Clwyd Cymru , October 4, 2011
At Theatr Clwyd by Theatr Clwyd Cymru- Taking Steps Lora Davies ends her residency under the Young Directors Scheme with a production of her own. “Taking Steps”, Alan Ayckbourn’s homage to Ben Travers, is a riotous show dependent on the tightest of timings from the six-strong cast. In the relatively small Emlyn Williams space they deliver. For the sold-out house it is an unusual late September performance. The Mediterranean temperature has brought the audience back into the shirtsleeves and flowery dresses of summer. The atmosphere of jollity is palpable.

The production has no credit for a costume designer. It looks as though Lora Davies and company have had fun assembling the fashion relics to fit the play’s date of 1979. Giant collars abound. Alex Parry’s Leslie with his leering grin, his speckly shirt and kipper tie is a truly awful sight. When he peels off his motorbike outfit a big toe pokes out from a hole in his sock. He competes with Michael Geary’s Mark as to who can sport the larger acreage of sideburns.

Charlotte Gray’s doomy, sad-faced Kitty summons up from somewhere a voice unlike any other. There’s nasal, a hint of “Young Ones” Neil, but hope and melancholy too. In her dangly, hippy-ethnic outfit and thick woolly socks she is a walking lack of spirit, a lovely performance. Robert Blythe is brash, domineering entrepreneur Roland- “big in buckets”- with his penchant for pre-breakfast alcohol. He wears three layers of clothing all with different checks. Catrin Aaron attempts her second marriage walk-out in a dress of bright zigzags.

Last year in Mold Max Jones constructed a towering, six-room edifice for an Ayckbourn production. The setting for “Taking Steps” is an unlovable, leaky, gloomy, three-storey Berkshire house “The Pines”. Mark Bailey’s design wittily collapses attic, bedroom and sitting room onto the theatre’s flat space. With a pair of banisters and staircases painted flat on the Emlyn Williams floor, the actors move between storeys by means of staccato, tip-tap steps.

This has been a season for celebrating Sir Alan’s fiftieth anniversary as a director. His accomplishment has been not just as writer of extraordinary fecundity who stretched the versatility of the stage to new limits. As director he was creator of a galvanisingly fresh “A View from the Bridge.”

The comedy in “Taking Steps” is not that of character. The characters possess a single, defining trait. Catrin Aaron’s Elizabeth- “like sleeping next to a racehorse”- is all febrile indecision, prone to letting off steam with a stint of ballet. Sion Pritchard is sentence-chewing, junior partner- “very junior”- solicitor Tristram.

Nor is it a comedy of many one-liners. A line in a letter of departure may be read as “I only wish I had the cabbage” but it is mainly dependent on situation. Act one is a masterly construction, mingling fears, secrets and misunderstandings. It leads to a deeply satisfying conclusion. But it is not repeated in the second act. At one point four characters sit down to suck on glucose sweets. The scene sags. Director and cast can pump in as much energy as they can but the second act feels lumpy and unsatisfactory. Back in 1979 the advertisements were printed, tickets were sold, and the cast gathered. But at the end of the first week of rehearsal there was still no script. The tardiness and haste in the writing show.

Every revival throws a script into the limelight for re-evaluation. There are a dozen more pointed Ayckbourn scripts. (There are also a dozen playwrights long absent from a Welsh stage.) “Taking Steps” is as classy and polished a production as any from Theatr Clwyd. But as a choice for production it feels unworthy for a company of its lustre.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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