The Revengers' Comedies: World Premiere Reviews
Ayckbourn's England And Its Dark Laughter (by Frank Rich)
"In this Yorkshire seaside resort, where pensioners practice ballroom dancing at the Victorian Grand hotel while teenagers hang out at a shiny Pizza Hut, one can see the contradictions of England today. Pressing hard on the cozy English landscape that Americans still romanticise is the hard-edged environment of economic expansion, the Thatcher England of progress or soullessness, depending on one's point of view. There is nothing unique about Scarborough, and that's why it is a fitting home for Alan Ayckbourn. The most extraordinary career in contemporary English playwriting is built entirely of the stuff of ordinary lives.
At a time when England boasts very few dramatists as vital as the dominant American playwrights of this decade, Mr. Ayckbourn is a one man renaissance. As the artistic director of the 300-seat Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in Scarborough, he spends most of each year directing other writers' scripts, then directs a new play of his own. This summer's production, The Revengers' Comedies, an epic achievement that opened here this week and runs until Sept. 23, coincides with his 50th birthday and his 30th year in Scarborough. It is, incredibly, his 37th play - an output, English commentators fondly point out, that equals Shakespeare's.
Mr. Ayckbourn's plays eventually make their way south to London, whether to the West End or the National Theatre, sometimes recast with stars, again under the author's direction. Henceforward..., seen in Scarborough in 1987, is now in its second West End cast, and Man of the Moment, last year's Scarborough premiere, is scheduled for London production next winter, with Michael Gambon in the lead. Mr. Gambon, the brilliant actor known primarily to American audiences for The Singing Detective, has appeared in two Ayckbourn triumphs in London in recent seasons, A Chorus of Disapproval and A Small Family Business, as well as in Mr. Ayckbourn's stunning revival of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge. Yet the Ayckbourn-Gambon collaboration has yet to be seen in the United States.
Were it not for the fine Manhattan Theater Club production of Woman in Mind, a relatively minor work of 1985, New York audiences would have no idea of this writer's remarkable growth through the 1980's. Mr Ayckbourn's American reputation largely rests instead on the Broadway productions of Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests and Bedroom Farce - none written later than 1976, all but the last erratically performed in New York and all still showing the author's boulevard comedy roots. Mr. Ayckbourn's later, most ambitious writing scares away many American commercial producers and resident theaters with rare exceptions like the Alley Theater in Houston, Arena Stage in Washington and A Contemporary Theater in Seattle. These plays demand large, versatile casts - John Gay's The Beggar's Opera is folded within A Chorus of Disapproval - and also audiences who can stomach middle class characters miserably lonely in marriage and consumed by greed.
For his 50th-birthday play, Mr. Ayckbourn decreed by press release that "something rather ambitious was in order." But what could he do to top his previous experiments in theatrical form and character? Mr. Ayckbourn's earlier works include a 2-actor play cycle whose 16 variants require 8 different scripts (Intimate Exchanges), a trilogy about the same people in different locations of the same house over a single weekend (The Norman Conquests), a comedy in which two couples occupy different settings but the same stage-space (How the Other Half Loves), and a play occurring in one of four different versions as determined at each performance by a coin toss (Sisterly Feelings).
Now Mr. Ayckbourn has outdone himself, making The Revengers' Comedies a work in two parts - one riotously funny, one chilling - that can be seen, Nicholas Nickleby style, in either two nights or in a six-hour marathon with a dinner break. At the marathon performance I attended, the playwright never lost the rapt attention of an audience widely heterogeneous in age and class. The Revengers' Comedies begins at a heavily plotted, hugely entertaining, pitch that recalls the old movies to which it frequently pays homage - Strangers on a Train, Rebecca, Kind Hearts and Coronets - then expands after intermission to reveal an immensely disturbing vision of contemporary middle-class England poisoned by the rise of economic ruthlessness and the collapse of ethics.
Though there are two dozen characters, all indelibly portrayed by the Scarborough cast, The Revengers' Comedies is primarily about two strangers who meet by chance on a fog-bound London bridge late one night while each attempts suicide.
Karen Knightly (Christine Kavanagh) is a young, attractive, rapacious heiress who has been jilted by her lover. Henry Bell (Jon Strickland) is her social opposite: a "piddling" 42-year-old clerk who has lost his job in a multi-national corporation by refusing to play office politics. Abandoning suicide, Karen and Henry make a pact to get revenge on each other's nemeses. Karen, impersonating a temporary secretary, goes to work for Henry's former employer, while Henry goes undercover among Karen's horsey set in Dorset.
As these two characters burrow into their hilarious Machiavellian schemes, Mr. Ayckbourn's portrait of urban and rural England grows darker. The multi-national corporation in London is a nightmare out of Caryl Churchill's Top Girls - a cesspool of sexism and careerism, epitomised by a boorish, burping and leering executive with the memorable name of Bruce Tick (Jeff Shankley). In the country, where the landed gentry have names like lmogen Staxton-Billing (Elizabeth Bell), we meet the spookily daft Knightly servants and hear about a "mysterious accident," perhaps pyromaniacal, of long ago. Poor, nebbishy Henry finds himself dragged into a shotgun duel tacitly sanctioned by the local police. "This is the 20th century, not the Dark ages!" he cries.
Or is it? By the end of Part 1, in, which Bruce Tick is driven to a heart attack in a London wine bar, the fun of justifiable revenge has been replaced by the excruciating spectacle of watching lives, some of them innocent, being cruelly destroyed. One begins to feel compassion even for the loathsome Tick. Yet Karen cannot let go of the game, and, in Part 2 of The Revengers' Comedies, the game has become synonymous with the national sport of hostile corporate takeovers, wholesale job "redundancies", and industrial destruction of the countryside. "Being good is never enough in itself," says Karen by way of rationalisation for her expedient behaviour. With a subtlety beyond the reach of many polemical English playwrights, Mr. Ayckbourn does not shy away from presenting the alternative to good as pure evil.
While The Revengers' Comedies has a few false endings before arriving at its devastating, though not hopeless, conclusion, it is hard to speak highly enough of a work whose elegant writing and staging is accompanied by an utter lack of pretension. Mr. Ayckbourn would as soon make reference to the Everly Brothers' song Cathy's Clown as to Cyril Tourneur's Jacobean Revenger's Tragedy. That's in keeping with a writer who chooses to work on a small stage in a small town but whose talent and theatrical ambitions increasingly seem without limit."
(New York Times, 22 June 1989)
Ayckbourn Play Makes For Sweet Revenge (by Matt Wolf)
"Plays with a moral stance often tend to preach, but that's because too few of them are written by Alan Ayckbourn. This playwright never opts for the conventional, and there's no reason why, seen anew as an ethicist, he should start to do so now. His new play The Revengers' Comedies, in its world premiere engagement through September 23 at his home theater in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, is a lacerating look at evil. It scores repeated points about the cruelties, small and large, by which many of us live. Yet, those expecting to be browbeaten will have to think again. While Mr. Ayckbourn has darkened his tone considerably over 30 years as Britain's busiest dramatist, he hasn't forgotten his abiding instinct: to entertain.
That entertainment, in recent years, has acquired admittedly more sombre hues, but pain has always been part of this dramatist's pleasure principle. It's there in the anguished silences of How the Other Half Loves and the wicked social reversals of Absurd Person Singular, the trilogy of marriages on view in Bedroom Farce and the operatic hi-jinks that make up A Chorus of Disapproval. So it's scant surprise that the opening minutes of The Revengers' Comedies are simultaneously shocking and hilarious. We've often seen human situations in which opposites attract, but rarely while both are attempting suicide by throwing themselves off a bridge.
The scene is London's Albert Bridge in Chelsea, the characters a peculiar and provocative mix. Karen Knightly (Christine Kavanagh) is one of Britain's plummy voiced elite, a calculating blonde fuelled by anger at having been jilted by a lover. Henry Bell (Jon Strickland) is the archetypal Ayckbourn Everyman - a decent, middle-class chap who has suddenly lost his job with a multinational corporation.
Temperamentally dissimilar, they can nonetheless name the reasons for their plight: Karen is furious at one Imogen Slaxton-Billing (Elizabeth Bell), whose husband, Anthony, Karen wanted for herself. Henry, in turn, reviles a certain Bruce Tick (Jeff Shankley), the odious usurper who has cost him his job as a clerk. Their shared discord saves them both from death, as Karen invites Henry to her family's Dorset mansion populated by a pair of servants and her brother, Oliver (Adam Godley), who has a habit of saying "goodo." A complicity arises, based on revenge. Each is to bring down the other's nemesis, finding in vengeance the satisfaction that has proven illusory in normal life.
What happens takes five-and-a-half-hours divided into two parts to relate, whether The Revengers' Comedies is seen in breakneck marathon performances or on successive nights. It's not revealing too much to say that emotions, as usual, have a habit of complicating plans, and that Henry falls for the woman, Imogen, whom he is supposed to ruin. Along the way, a complicated scenario snowballs, involving filthy office politics and even filthier human ones. Karen infiltrates Henry's former company as a novice secretary and ends up rising to the top in a succession of manoeuvres that would stun even Tess McGill from Working Girl. Henry becomes enmeshed in murder and an odd Gothic-style dynastic tragedy until the two protagonists' paths meet unforgettably for the last time.
Throughout, abrasion rules, summed up by the futility of one character's wish for a world where, "goodness were enough in itself." Such hopes exist in a vacuum, Mr. Ayckbourn makes clear, as his play moves between satire and bloodlust just as its Jacobean namesake, Cyril Tourneur's 1607 Revenger's Tragedy, did before it. The author's scalpel-sharp direction, and his equally biting cast, guarantee that you'll have a good time, but in this play, more than ever, the laughter marks the lull before the chill."
(Wall Street Journal, 7 July, 1989)
Two's Company (by Robin Thornber)
"Alan Ayckbourn is 50 this year. He wrote his first play when he was 20 and an actor in Stephen Joseph's Scarborough summer company; this is his 37th major work, most of them premiered here; and every year he seems to get better, richer, deeper, more mature.
His energy and imagination seem to grow rather than flag; his teasing of theatrical form seems endless. This year, to celebrate the half century, he offers us a play in two parts, staged on the first night in a six-hour marathon.
In The Revengers' Comedies he tackles the threatening menace of unfathomable evil that first emerged in Way Upstream, facing up to the havoc that's unleashed among basically decent, bumbling people by a bit of real, calculating nastiness. Most of his characters are ordinarily timid, lazy, morally shabby; now we're meeting fears of genuinely dark forces that have to be confronted.
Henry Bell's a dull, nervous clerk (a performance of-masterly unassertiveness in which Jon Strickland is confirmed as a classic comic actor); deserted by his wife and edged into redundancy at work he's about to jump from the Albert Bridge into the Thames, but interrupted by a cry for help.
It comes from Karen Knightly, wealthy daughter of a big house in the country (another rivetingly accurate performance from Christine Kavanagh in a dangerous role), also about to jump. She persuades him that they have a reason to live in revenge - she'll destroy the office ogre who took his place if he'll humiliate the wife who snatched her lover back.
It's an intriguing situation and even if it sometimes stretches credulity, Alan Ayckbourn's own production at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round is so spell-binding you happily suspend your disbelief through two full-length plays as she claws her way through the office jungle and he diffidently falls for his country-life target (another rewarding performance from Elizabeth Bell).
The plays are peopled with a wealth of only slightly larger than life cameo roles - Jeff Shankley's business boor, Ursula Jones's dedicated secretary, Doreen Andrew's dragon housekeeper, Rupert Vansittart's icily outraged husband, Donald Douglas's correct colonel, Adam Godley's dreamy playboy - and embellished with countless classic moments of theatrical business.
It's these minutiae of detailed observation that make Ayckbourn's productions so theatrically luscious, that top the simmering giggles with a bonus belly-laugh that sees you through the underlying grimness of life and death, ageing and loving.
And similarly Roger Glossop's design, enhanced by Mick Hughes's lighting and ever present sound effects, uses an intricate system of trucked scene-setting furniture as slickly effective as Ayckbourn dramatic structure."
(The Guardian, 15 June 1989)
Killing Apart (by Peter Kemp)
"Cruel sports and fights to the death fill The Revengers' Comedies, Alan Ayckbourn's masterly new play. So it is all too appropriate that at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round at Scarborough it should be acted out on an arena stage.
Part One opens on Albert Bridge, from which Henry Bell - a depressed middle-aged loser - is about to deposit himself into the Thames. Cries from beneath the bridge reveal an earlier would-be suicide, Karen Knightly, caught on a girder. Rescuing her, Henry pulls himself out of his feelings of futility, and, with appetites for life restored, the two survivors vow to hunt down each other's enemies.
Rich, imperious, young and smart, Karen is the opposite of hesitant Henry (nicely played by Jon Strickland). Socially she hails from a very different sphere - which means that, as each closes in on the other's prey, two contrasting worlds copiously stocked with specimens for comic culling are opened up. As Henry pursues Karen's punitive purposes down in the West Country, she is slinking towards the kill through the corporate warren of a multinational firm in London.
In the Shires, Ayckbourn's bent for conveying farcical unease is given its head. Hedged in by confident county types, the middle-class townsman undergoes ordeal by consternation. Discovery of the local code of settling scores with shotguns sends particular tremors through him. And at Karen's country house, where he is quartered, things are scarcely less disquieting. In this gothic establishment, complete with mysteriously burned-out summerhouse, outlandish occurrences are routine. Bizarrely imperturbable no matter what happens, though, is Winnie, the elderly housekeeper. Performed with a mad staidness by Doreen Andrew, she is a hilarious high-spot in an evening rich in farce.
Up in London, meanwhile, Karen is gleefully cutting a retributive swathe through middle management. As her opponents (from greasily bumptious junior executive to gruff spinster PA) bite the dust, the tally of casualties - nervous breakdown, heart attack, fatal topple from a roof - mounts up impressively. And down in the country even ineffectual Henry isn't doing too badly. After blunderingly provoking a punishing outbreak of GBH among Karen's foes, he accidentally slaughters the man who jilted her. Unfortunately he also falls in love with the woman she has asked him to destroy, so the first half of Ayckbourn's two-part, five-hour play ends with the avenging allies at daggers drawn.
Part Two explores the consequences. Karen (stylishly played by Christine Kavanagh) becomes more and more formidable, but behind her sophisticated wiliness, it is shown, lies infantile disturbance. Modulating into half-spoofed, half-spooky gothic horror, the play pits her ghoulish gains against the undramatically domestic relationship he is seeking to establish with her loathed rival Imogen (all household ordinariness in Elizabeth Bell's good performance).
Where Henry hates scenes, Karen loves drama. Linking this to her un-grown-up attitudes, Ayckbourn gives his work a surprising final twist. Relish for revenge and delight in plotting and impersonation are dismissed as immature in a comedy whose zest - his acted-to-the-hilt production demonstrates - springs from Vaudeville vendetta, monsters getting their comeuppance and humour that is, in more senses than one, killingly funny."
(The Independent, June 1989)
Mis-Matched But Quite A Pair (by Irving Wardle)
"Intending suicides collide at midnight on Albert Bridge - the girl crossed in love, and a man who has lost his job - and, instead of putting an end to it all, conclude a pact to take revenge on each other's enemies.
Such is the opening of this five-hour production with which Alan Ayckbourn is lavishly celebrating his fiftieth birthday. Congratulations to Britain's most fertile master dramatist are in order.
Among the roll-call of his past titles there are two prototypes for this new piece: plays such as Way Upstream that show a harmless adventure going hideously wrong; and those such as A Chorus of Disapproval that show a guileless outsider blundering into a tight-knit social group. Henry and Karen may start on equal terms, but the great board game of life soon reveals the differences between them: she a wealthy country girl with impetuously privileged manners, he a spiritlessly apologetic clerk who falls in with the plan of her initiative. Henry is to punish the wife who reclaimed her husband from the affair, while Karen is to take care of the office traitor (the memorably named Bruce Tick) who has stolen his job.
It goes without saying that Karen goes to work like a flame-thrower. Effortlessly insinuating her slick form past rival secretarial applicants, and finding Tick (Jeff Shankley) to be the bottom-pinching chauvinist of her dreams, she launches into a campaign of compromising phone calls that wrecks his marriage and finally leaves him, belching his lust, under a wine-bar table. A bit excessive, but the comic impact is terrific.
If Karen is unnervingly at home with multi-national office life, Henry is miserably ill-at-ease back in the Dorset mansion which he shares with Karen's brother, whose main pleasure is chasing deaf rabbits on a motorbike, and with an imperturbable old housekeeper who is hanging on to the job by keeping the trainee maid in a state of nervous paralysis: in this lovely double act (by Doreen Andrew and Clare Skinner), even serving out cornflakes resembles a death-defying high wire act. Meanwhile, not only has Henry's revengeful resolution faltered but he has fallen in love with the enemy - who turns out to be a likeable heiress with a brutally philandering husband. At this point the piece splits in two, between light-hearted comedy of office politics, and decidedly grimmer rustic comedy (for want of a better word) overshadowed by doom-laden events from the past.
Despite ingenious inter-cutting of the locations, the two sides pull in opposite directions. For instance, to give Henry a chance to make a thorough mess of things, Ayckbourn has to keep Karen in the office executing further reprisals beyond the call of duty. The country scenes build up a painfully funny chain of disasters, culminating in a duel between Henry and the trigger-happy husband, whom he eliminates by accidentally dropping his gun. The intention is clear. Embark on revenge, and the game takes you back to the dark ages; embodied here by a remote corner of the countryside where every legal irregularity, including violent death, is taken care of by the local gentry.
There is, however, no connection between Karen the cool instigator of office intrigue and the Dracula-like figure who makes her midnight return to hold her ally to his vow. The worlds of the Secretary Bird and Cold Comfort Farm will not match up.
They are, however, aligned with consummate atmospheric control in Ayckbourn's electronically mechanized production. Elizabeth Bell and Jon Strickland (a very slow turning worm) play the love affair with a pained fervour that almost makes you believe it. And Christine Kavanagh's Karen, part boss-lady, part little girl and part witch, is a fearsome tour de force."
(The Times, 15 June 1989)
Dual Duel (by Michael Billington)
"Alan Ayckbourn celebrates his half-century this year with a six-hour play in two parts, The Revengers' Comedies, currently receiving its premiere at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, Scarborough. It is a remarkable event, but not even my belief that Ayckbourn is the best comic dramatist the world has seen since Goldoni can blind me to the fact that, on this occasion, the brilliance of the first play is not quite sustained in the second.
Ayckbourn takes as his premise an idea that triggered the Patricia Highsmith novel and Hitchcock movie Strangers on a Train: that of a chance encounter that leads to an unfortunate agreement to swap murders. The twin protagonists meet at midnight on Albert Bridge where they are both contemplating suicide. Henry Bell is a sad, divorced, middle-aged man who has recently been ousted from his job by a pushy upstart called Bruce Tick. By contrast, his suicidal companion, Karen Knightly, is a bright, wealthy country girl who lives in a 58-room mansion but whose married farmer-lover has recently been lured back home by his apparently scheming wife Imogen.
Henry and Karen both talk idly of revenge; but it is she who comes up with the menacing idea that she will ruin (if not actually kill) the dreaded Mr Tick while Henry will take care of the rural hussy.
It is a marvellous comic idea, not least because it shows both partners having to adjust to totally unfamiliar worlds. Ayckbourn gets superb mileage out of the nervous, urban Henry's unease with high country life. One particular breakfast scene, where a dragon-housekeeper hovers over a dim-witted servant who manages to strew cornflakes all over the floor, is a classic piece of physical comedy. Meanwhile Karen's Machiavellian rise in the business world and her plans to contrive the fall of the house of Tick are equally witty: her technique includes taking a job as Tick's temporary secretary and then undermining his domestic security by sending erotic nighties to his home address.
Ayckbourn's comic craft is now so assured that he can even, as in A Small Family Business, create a death scene that has the audience caught exactly between hilarity and horror.
By the end of the first play, I felt a masterpiece was in prospect. Ayckbourn not only cuts briskly between town and country but also shows how a revenge pact can go disastrously wrong. While Karen gleefully despatches Mr Tick (an idle, eructating oaf with roving hands), Henry finds himself falling hopelessly in love with his presumed victim. During the Scarborough dinner interval, everyone was busily asking, in the words of Shakespeare's Viola, "How will this fade?", and wondering what ingenious plot twists the master-craftsman had in store.
It would be unfair to reveal what does happen, but I feel the second part goes slightly adrift for two reasons. One is that Ayckbourn loses sight of the revenge motif and pads the play out with some dubious satire on the lines of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. The other is that he becomes increasingly fascinated with the idea of Karen as the incarnation of evil: an almost theological concept that has preoccupied him ever since his creation of the vagrant river-person, Vince, in Way Upstream.
But unmotivated evil is a difficult notion to handle; and, to me, Ayckbourn is at his best when he shows perfectly normal people, like the hero of A Small Family Business, drifting into murder and moral chaos through circumstances rather than some innate character defect.
Obviously, the second play has rich compensations. Ayckbourn writes with tenderness and feeling about the burgeoning love affair between Henry and Imogen. He also suggests, most intriguingly, that English country life camouflages ritualised violence and that a duel is still a possibility in this day and age (the first duel in modern drama, someone suggested, since Chekhov's Three Sisters).
By the end, the play is back on course, and neatly confirms John Ford's point that "Revenge proves its own executioner". But Ayckbourn needs to do some trimming and tidying in the second play and needs somehow to keep the revenge idea alive in the audience's minds.
I have no cavils, however, with Ayckbourn's immaculate production (which shifts deftly from scene to scene with trucked-on furniture), nor with his first-rate Scarborough cast. Jon Strickland, who plays Henry, I knew to be a consummate actor from his performance in last year's Man of the Moment: with his cavernous features and disappearing chin, he has a wonderful capacity for making ordinariness interesting.
A revelation to me was Christine Kavanagh, who is breathtakingly good as Karen: she has tone, style, class and a look of debutante freshness that conceals, as we discover, a gimlet-eyed madness. Because the Scarborough cast rarely makes it intact to London, we forget Ayckbourn's gift for casting his plays to perfection on their native Yorkshire soil.
Here there is a wealth of good supporting performances from such trusted figures as Elizabeth Bell as the farmer's wife who finds herself falling in love in the piggery, Donald Douglas as her ramrod-backed, impeccably correct, murder-sanctioning uncle, Jeff Shankley as the prize Tick whose downfall we eagerly await, and Doreen Andrew as the most sinister housekeeper since Daphne du Maurier's Mrs Danvers.
As I stumbled out into the Scarborough streets well after midnight, I reflected that even if the work is not unflawed, Ayckbourn has done something vitally important: he has proved yet again that a play these days has to be more than a diversion and must take on the status of a unique event."
(Country Life, 22 June 1989)
Revengers' Comedies (by Michael Ratcliffe)
"Alan Ayckbourn's new play rests on the exaltation of revenge as a fire that never goes out but always seeks new victims to consume. I say 'play' because, although there are two parts to The Revengers' Comedies (Stephen Joseph, Scarborough), booked and performed separately, they are continuous, and it is assumed at the start of part two that the audience will have seen part one.
At Tuesday's press night, they were given in sequence, beginning at six and ending, after an hour's interval, at 12.20 p.m. This is certainly not the way to see them, because it exposes their repetitions and light-headed serial techniques too keenly.
The Revengers' Comedies start with a marvellous idea and set it up beautifully. Wicked, spoiled Karen (Christine Kavanagh) and good, neglected Henry (Jon Strickland) each prevent the other from jumping off Chelsea Bridge. Karen's Dorset lover has returned to Imogen, his battleaxe wife (Elizabeth Bell); Henry has been sacked by his conglomerate bosses and replaced by a blustering rat called Bruce Tick (Jeff Shankley). Karen suggests they take over each other's revenges: Henry will go for Imogen and she will tackle Tick.
The conspiracy goes wrong when Henry falls in love with Imogen, not a battleaxe at all but an oppressed wife. Karen's implacable course takes her to the top of Henry's old firm, but there is no balancing intensity in the love affair which, beginning in delicate tenderness, goes dull. The two stories proceed quite separately for much of part two and, although the play is filled up with villains, grotesques, running gags and pastiches, Ayckbourn does nothing in five and a quarter hours that he would not do more sharply and dangerously in three. His company is splendid."
(The Observer, 18 June 1989)
The Laughs Run Out For Ayckbourn (by Charles Spencer)
"Alan Ayckbourn's new two-part play is a gruelling marathon. The Revengers' Comedies begins at 6 pm and doesn't end until well past midnight. Long-distance runners talk about a "wall of pain", and at about 10 pm, shortly after the hour-long supper interval, I hit mine. Despite the dramatist's considerable and ingenious endeavours, I never quite recovered my early enthusiasm for this ambitious show, and finally emerged from Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre feeling more exhausted than entertained.
Talking about the play shortly before it went into rehearsal, Ayckbourn, whose work has been tackling broader social issues and getting progressively darker of late, announced that he felt it was time "to have a bit of fun again - this is my Saturday morning picture show for adults". And for the whole of the first part, it is very good fun indeed.
As so often in Ayckbourn, the initial situation is deceptively simple and rich in comic potential. In the early hours of the morning, Henry Bell, a meek mouse of a man in his 40s and Karen Knightly, an attractive Hooray Henrietta in her 20s meet on Albert Bridge. Henry has been fired from the multinational company he has served faithfully for years; Karen has been crossed in love. Both are attempting suicide.
Then the worm turns.
Instead of suicide, suggests the girl, why not take revenge on those who have done them down? And, to make sure they are never unmasked, why not swap revenges? Thus, the girl gets a job in Henry's office and wreaks hilarious and deadly havoc there.
Poor Henry, meanwhile, is dispatched to Miss Knightly's decaying Victorian mansion in Dorset, where he is meant to take revenge on the woman who has supposedly scuppered Karen's romantic happiness. Instead, helplessly, sadly and touchingly, he falls in love with the completely innocent woman he is supposed to destroy. Karen Knightly, a deranged and determined young woman is dangerously unamused.
For the first half, the piece works superbly as an inventive comedy thriller. The scenes are short, sharp and often wonderfully funny. And there is a real feeling of dramatic suspense. The action moves between London and darkest Dorset with almost cinematic fluency, and indeed the whole play is much influenced by fondly remembered films from the past. I caught echoes of Strangers on a Train, Kind Hearts and Coronets, Rebecca and Brief Encounter, and there are doubtless many others.
Sadly, part two proves to be a distinct anti-climax, hampered by the fact that the most entertaining character of all - a burping, groping, barrow-boy of a businessman, caught in all his obscene glories by Jeff Shankley - has been bumped off at the end of the first half.
Ayckbourn strives in vain to recapture the dizzy comic heights of the earlier scenes, but, despite some fine moments, including an unexpected twist on that old film cliché, the duelling scene, the laughs become less frequent and less loud. As the plot thickens, the pace becomes more sluggish and the attempt to create a sinister mood of menace fails.
After five hours both the story and the characters have grossly outstayed their welcome and, when the play ends, inevitably back at Albert Bridge, I found it impossible to care whether it was Henry or Karen who finally jumped off.
Even off-form Ayckbourn, however, is a good deal more enjoyable than most dramatists working at the peak of their powers. There are many characteristic shafts of desolate sadness amid the pitch-black humour, and the crafty old stage technician gives his own play a fine production.
As the vengeful Karen, Christine Kavanagh reveals real star quality. Adopting a series of different personalities to effect her dastardly plans, she progresses brilliantly from dowdy frumpishness through slatternly glamour to ice-cold chic. It is an immensely assured performance that creates a chilling, plausible impression of a vicious lunatic on the loose.
Jon Strickland is an admirable foil as her reluctant, ineffectual partner, and in a play boasting more than 20 characters, there are some lovely comic cameos. As well as Shankley's unspeakable businessman, I particularly enjoyed Clare Skinner as a terrified, self-effacing servant girl and Rupert Vansittart as one of the dramatist's most memorably odious husbands.
As well as the marathon double-bill, it is possible to see The Revengers' Comedies on separate nights. Whichever way you choose, however, I fear that on this occasion more Ayckbourn means less."
(Daily Telegraph, 15 June 1989)
All reviews are copyright of the respective publication.