Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Theatre review: Communicating Doors

Ever since we saw the Old Vic's production of The Norman Conquests in 2008, Vanessa has been an Alan Ayckbourn fan, and as you can pretty much put money on there being at least one production of his plays a year, it's ended up reliably being my birthday present to her. But while she's continued to love the plays, for me there's been seriously diminishing returns. So maybe my expectations were low, but it turns out Communicating Doors is the Ayckbourn I've enjoyed the most since that first trip. Perhaps it's the fact that, while still recognisably Ayckbourn in many ways, the play has quite a different feel to it to the domestic comedies I've been used to in the last few years. It's a very English take on a time travel adventure as, in the year 2020, dominatrix Phoebe (Rachel Tucker) travels through a riot-torn London, past where Big Ben used to be, to meet a wealthy old client in a five-star hotel.

But Reece (Robert Portal) doesn't want to get spanked: Knowing he's close to death he's in a confessional mood, and wants Phoebe to witness his crimes. For the sake of their financial interests, his psychotic business partner Julian (David Bamber) murdered both Reece's wives, and he sat back and let him do it.

When Julian finds out Phoebe knows their secret, he tries to kill her too, but she escapes into a communicating door. It should lead to a linen closet but instead it takes her 20 years back in time to the same room in 2000, on the date when Reece's second wife Ruella (Imogen Stubbs) is due to get pushed out of a window. It turns out this suite has had a long association with Reece and his wives, and once Ruella is convinced of the danger she's in, she travels back 20 years herself to meet her predecessor on honeymoon in 1980 - and try to change the future for all of them.

Even if first wife Jessica (Lucy Briggs-Owen) turns out to be a bit of a dumb blonde, this is still very much a show where the women get the best roles. As they go on their relay through time (the "rules" of the communicating door seem to make it possible only to travel 20 years back from your own time, so Phoebe can't warn Jessica herself,) the three women make for quite an admirable team.

But thanks in part to a cast-against-type David Bamber as a menacing Julian, Lindsay Posner's production, although still retaining touches of the usual sitcom humour (and, being Ayckbourn, the obligatory role for Memorable Actor Matthew Cottle,) comes across mostly as a surprisingly effective thriller. Richard Kent's set doesn't go in for quite as big a spectacle as the Menier sometimes throws at the stage, with a fairly simple effect representing the time travel, but where we are and what's going on is always clear. (Although you'd think a five-star hotel would have redecorated at some point in 40 years...)

Communicating Doors by Alan Ayckbourn is booking until the 27th of June at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

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