Sunday, 17 May 2015

15 May, 2015: ‘Way Upstream’ at Chichester Festival Theatre ****

Chichester’s main house season kicks off with Nadia Fall’s revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s Way Upstream. Ayckbourn has written in excess 70 full length plays and a select few such as Absurd Person Singular and Season’s Greetings have become firmly established in the repertoire. Way Upstream is not one of them. It had an inauspicious start with technical problems overshadowing things at the National Theatre in 1982. Sheridan Morley writing for Punch was particularly brutal:

"Another Scarborough wreck has been hauled south and the sooner it gets a decent burial at sea the better."

A BBC film in 1987 made little impression and has never seen the light of day since. Two things make the play problematical. The technical problems at the National resulted from the fact that the action takes place on a cabin cruiser hired by two holidaying couples and necessitates the flooding of the stage to create a convincing river into which certain characters dive or fall. The second problem is that this highly allegorical play was very much of its time, a time when Britain lurching from the Winter of Discontent to record unemployment of 2 million.

This production, however, has confronted both of these issues head on. Technically, it is a tour-de-force. The thrust stage is similar to the stage at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough for which the play was originally written, and, after its refurbishment, the Chichester main house is more than equipped to deal with flooded stages and 21ft cabin cruisers being turned every which way on runners. And as for the political and economic context, well, a Tory Prime Minister sticking doggedly to austerity policies as the economy falters – does that ring any bells?

The play starts off in conventional Ayckbourn style as comedy of manners. Boorish factory owner and alpha male Keith (Peter Forbes) and his world-weary and cynical wife June (Sarah Parish) have hired a cabin cruiser for a fortnight’s holiday with Keith’s timid and ineffectual business partner Alistair (Jason Hughes) and his mild and even-tempered wife Emma played by Jill Halfpenny. Due to a mix-up the boat is far too small to accommodate four people comfortably. Keith, on account of some previous experience with boats and possession of a manual, immediately appoints himself skipper, and subservient roles are assigned to the others. So far, so funny. But after some hilarious set pieces involving tangled ropes and near misses with other vessels the tone changes with the arrival of Vince (Jason Durr). After initially having made himself useful and appearing to have expert knowledge of all matters nautical Vince is easily (too easily?) persuaded to attach himself to the group.

Thereafter, the second half is a study in the exercise of power and status. Alistair and Emma become Everyman and the butt of the powerful and sadistic power games played by Vince, Keith and June. Sadism, avarice and naked self-interest all rear their ugly heads before a denouement in which allegory becomes pure fantasy. It’s hard in retrospect to pin-point the moment at which laughter turns to horror. This is a play that serves to remind us what a consummate dramatist Ayckbourn is and that behind the comedy is social commentary of blistering excoriation.

All the dramatic arts and crafts are of a high standard in this production – acting, direction design and lighting. Well worth seeing.  

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