Monday, 1 October 2012

Theatre review: A Chorus of Disapproval

I do hope that somewhere there's a theatre called the Alan Ayckbourn Theatre that predominantly shows plays by Pinter, as a bit of balance because since getting renamed, the Harold Pinter Theatre seems to have mainly specialised in Ayckbourn. The latest is Trevor Nunn's revival of A Chorus of Disapproval, a 1980s (though in this production at least, the setting is largely cosmetic) trip to a small English town and its troubled amateur operatics company. We follow their production of The Beggar's Opera from early rehearsals to public performance, through the eyes of newcomer Guy (Nigel Harman,) a shy widower. Over the three months' worth of rehearsals, Guy goes from socially awkward nonentity to star of the show, resident stud and the man everyone wants to be friends with, all the way out the other end to least popular man in the company - largely by accident, and to his great confusion.

A Chorus of Disapproval is a typically cosy-but-a-bit-barbed Ayckbourn comedy of middle class secrets, ambitions and disappointments. Much of the funniest material comes from the desperately slow rehearsals run by director Dafydd (Rob Brydon,) as one by one the cast members drop out and Guy, in a running joke, finds himself gradually promoted up the cast, from single line of dialogue to leading man. But there's just as much going on behind the scenes as Guy ends up having affairs with two married women - including Dafydd's wife Hannah.

I was particularly excited to see the excellent Ashley Jensen on stage, and although she doesn't disappoint with her performance as Hannah, I did feel it was rather a shame that this is one of the less comic roles in the play, meaning she doesn't really get to show off that side of her abilities. Instead hers is rather a quietly tragic character, trapped in a sexless, if not necessarily loveless marriage. There's broader comic strokes in Guy's other romantic misadventure, as without quite noticing it he gets caught up with a married couple with a penchant for swingers' parties (Daisy Beaumont and London Road's Paul Thornley.) The scene of Guy arriving for what he mistakenly thinks is a dinner party, and staying resolutely naïve in the face of increasing evidence to the contrary, is probably the play's strongest comic sequence.

Dafydd is an ebullient Welshman with a fondness for bad jokes and a tendency to steal the limelight, while occasionally letting through a glimpse of the panic buried underneath the jolly exterior. So it's not surprising that Brydon seemed a good match for the character, and he plays up to what's expected of him with a crowd-pleasing performance that isn't particularly anything we haven't seen him do before, but fits the bill and gets a lot of laughs. The three stars are well-supported by the rest of the cast: Beaumont amusingly vampish and Thornley vaguely sinister as the swingers; Rob Compton in strong voice as the thuggish original star of the show, Georgia Brown and Jessica Ellerby the two women fighting over him; Memorable Actor Matthew Cottle seems to have found himself an Ayckbourn niche as a cast member who needs an extraordinary amount of coaching; Susan Tracy is fun as the mandatory impatient posh lady; and as well as his being a good match for the role, I got a bit of a meta-joke out of Barrie Rutter, probably better known as a director, being cast as Jarvis, who infuriates Dafydd with his back-seat directing.

As the big Ayckbourn fan, Vanessa was due to come to this with me, but she had a last-minute conflict. But my sister's happy to see anything Nigel Harman's in so was an enthusiastic replacement; as well as Harman himself (though she did say she wasn't crazy about his attempt at a Leeds accent; I thought it was perfectly all right if taken as the very gentle accent of someone who was born in the area but left some time ago) she was entertained by the play, and I heard her chuckle out loud a couple of times (not something she's that prone to do even if she really enjoys something.) She did also say she found the show a bit too long, but with the words "Trevor" and "Nunn" on the poster that was never really going to be avoidable.

Between Ayckbourn's fanbase and Brydon's I can't see this having any trouble filling seats (despite being a Monday night not that long after reviews came out, tonight was pretty busy) and it'll reward both I'm sure, while it won't do a thing to change the minds of the playwright's detractors. Whether it's the play itself or Nunn's direction I'm not sure, but while the writer's always tended towards the bittersweet, in this particular instance I found the show a bit uncertain in tone. A subplot involving gossip about the company Guy works for is important to the overall story, but never really all that interesting. And the ending was a bit unsatisfying to me, not helped by a cheery finale that's at odds with what came before and, I assume, was the director's choice. A Chorus of Disapproval provides a lot of entertaining moments and has strong performances, but I can't see it being one I'll remember for all that long.

A Chorus of Disapproval by Alan Ayckbourn is booking until the 5th of January at the Harold Pinter Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

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