“every character vivid and witty as the play builds to its satisfyingly mad climax”
Sir Alan Ayckbourn is probably England’s best-known living playwright, and almost certainly its most successful. With more than 80 plays to his credit, he’s celebrated for a string of biting comedies that poke enthusiastic fun at the adulterous middle classes. At 80, he’s still writing, but was at his high point in the seventies and eighties, with a record-breaking five plays once running simultaneously in the West End. These days he’s also often the subject of university theses, with some seeing more than sparkling comedy and huge box office success in the darker side of his writing.
‘Ten Times Table’ was written in 1977, after the playwright endured a year of seemingly interminable committee meetings as his Scarborough theatre prepared to move. Yes, at least in the first half, this is ‘a predominantly sedentary farce’ about committee meetings, according to its author. It’s also something of an allegory for the politics of its day, when union activism was just taking off, and Margaret Thatcher was preparing to take power. But don’t be put off! In the hands of this team of seasoned Ayckbourn performers, directed by the excellent Robin Herford, an excellent evening’s entertainment is guaranteed.
The play opens as Robert Daws (Tuppy Glossop in Jeeves & Wooster) enters the darkened ballroom of a tatty three star hotel. He and Deborah Grant (playing his wife) are the mainstays of the play, which has a large cast by Ayckbourn’s standards. As Ray, Daws has a repertoire of funny vocal mannerisms that are just right for a pedantic committee Chairman. With her big hair and bigger speeches, there’s more than a passing resemblance to Margaret Thatcher in Grant’s smart performance as his wife. Her protagonist is a Marxist teacher of modern history who becomes obsessed with bringing to life a working class hero in a historical pageant (an excellent performance by Craig Gazey, Graeme Proctor in ‘Coronation Street’). The rest of the cast are equally strong, with every character vivid and witty as the play builds to its satisfyingly mad climax.
It’s also worth mentioning some satisfying design backing up the performers in this traditional-looking show (Michael Holt, with sound and lighting by Dan Samson and Jason Taylor).
A play about committees and the posturing follies of British political life? In these capable hands we’re guaranteed a good evening that brought appreciative whistles and cheers from a good-natured audience at the start of its short Windsor run.
Reviewed by David Woodward
Photography by Pamela Raith
Ten Times Table
Theatre Royal Windsor until 1st February then UK tour continues
“The pitch is perfect, as is the balance of ballads and foot stompers – the ideal mixtape”
Nick Hornby’s novel, written nearly twenty-five years ago, was an instant hit capturing the mid-nineties zeitgeist when the notion that ‘boys will be boys’ was just beginning to be chipped away by the new sensibilities. This could have been a death blow for the novel, but the emotional intelligence of Hornby’s writing allowed it to endure; its success leading to the millennial film starring John Cusack and Jack Black, and eventually a stage musical. Written by David Lindsay-Abaire with music by Tom Kitt and lyrics by Amanda Green it premiered on Broadway in 2006 but closed after thirteen performances.
Paul Taylor-Mills’ production at the Turbine Theatre has successfully brought the show up to date while staying true to its roots, and it is safe to say that this sensational reinterpretation will not suffer the same fate. Writer and comedienne Vikki Stone has been brought on board to adapt the script and lyrics, relocating the action back to London and reclaiming the inherent buoyancy and playfulness of the story.
The plot focuses on Rob, the owner of a record shop in Holloway, whose girlfriend, Laura, has just left him. Obsessed with compiling lists and ‘mixtapes’, he recalls his five most memorable breakups before Laura, and eventually his self-examination leads to self-realisation and reconciliation. On paper it should be hard to like the overgrown, commitment-phobic problem child that is Rob. His dated sense of male entitlement should rub you up the wrong way in today’s climate, but Oliver Ormson’s winning performance grabs our empathy with both hands.
Supported by an outstanding cast, the laughs come thick and fast. Robbie Durham and Carl Au as Barry and Dick, the part time hired help in Rob’s record store, complement Ormson, creating a trio that could win awards if that was the goal. But there is a self-deprecatory disregard for approval that is reflected in the characters’ relish in working in a shop that has “zero growth potential”. Yet in this mannish world, the women call the shots. Shanay Holmes, as Laura, knows she has the upper hand, but Holmes underscores her fiery independence with a vulnerability that simultaneously softens and strengthens the character.
Tom Kitt’s score mixes pop with rock, heavy metal and Motown, country and soul with a seasoning of rap and R&B. It could easily be a mess but, aided by director Tom Jackson Greaves’ sharp choreography, the eclectic selection of styles has a cohesive whole. It is a feat pulled off only by the close-knit chemistry of the entire ensemble and band of musicians. The pitch is perfect, as is the balance of ballads and foot stompers – the ideal mixtape. In an age of Spotify playlists, it is refreshing to hear references to cassettes and vinyl. David Shields’ set places us in a bygone world of the record shop, before music went online. But the essential truth of music and its undeniable impact on us remains true and keeps this story relevant and timeless. “High Fidelity” is a timely boost of optimism. Rob would put it at the top of his list of reasons to be cheerful.