By Paul Campion
Apparently, ‘A Chorus of Disapproval’ was the first play Alan Aykbourn wrote on a word processor. It seems appropriate that this very 1980s play (first performed at the National Theatre in 1984) should be created using such an Eighties piece of technology. For while both were regarded as state-of-the-art at the time, they seem like period pieces now.
For me (and I stress the ‘for me’, as I know others will disagree) the problem is that when Ayckbourn first emerged, his comedies of the middle-classes and their foibles were cutting-edge. But their effectiveness relied on the audience’s recognition of those characters. Unfortunately, times have changed and Ayckbourn’s trademark furrow has since been ploughed by other writers with a more contemporary style. Leaving the Bard of Scarborough’s output looking somewhat dated.
‘A Chorus Of Disapproval’ tells the tale of widower Guy Jones who joins the Pendon Amateur Light Operatic Society (PALOS) in search of a fresh start. The trouble is, Guy has a complete inability to say no. Thus, in keeping with the familiar Ayckbournian theme of havoc being caused by the well-meaning innocent, he finds himself having affairs with two female members of the cast, including the director’s wife. Not only that, he is falsely believed to have insider knowledge of a lucrative land deal, causing him to be gradually elevated from one-line bit-parter to the lead role in the society’s latest production.
The show in question is John Gay’s ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ and Ayckbourn matches Guy’s ‘adventures’ with the plot of that, presenting us with the neat parallel of a local amateur operatic society, crawling with modern suburban versions of the twisters, shysters and adulterers presented by Gay.
In many ways Guy has to act as a kind of ‘straight man’ to the more extreme characters around him and Richard Toynton turned in a suitably subtle, well-judged performance. By contrast, PALOS’ exasperatedly emotional Welsh director Dafydd Ap Llewellyn is all bluster and bumptiousness and was energetically brought to life by BLT newcomer Mark Jamieson. Despite all his brio we soon find out that Dafydd is actually escaping his real life by throwing himself into a theatrical one. The scene in which he pours out his true feelings, only to find that the Tannoy system has been left switched on is classic Ayckbourn – at once hilarious and tragic.
These two are the mainstays of the piece, but there were several other enjoyable characterisations, stand-outs being Ami Williamson’s cool sardonic Bridget, battling (literally at one point) with her love rival Linda (a punky, sulky Jess Jenner); Richard Gissing making a welcome return to BLT as suburban sleazeball Ian Hubbard; Jan Greenhough enhancing her already considerable canon of fine performances as Rebecca Huntley-Pike and John Turnbull making a memorable BLT debut as her Yorkshire know-all husband Jarvis, alongside another welcome debutante Ruth Makepeace, hitting all the right notes as Hannah, Daffyd’s frustrated and neglected wife.
But most enjoyable was Freya Finnerty’s sex-mad Fay who – in what is definitely the play’s best scene – attempts to seduce Guy into a spot of ‘swinging’. Here, Ayckbourn skilfully orchestrates the dialogue so she’s talking about sex but Guy thinks she’s talking about food. The results are really funny (veal-ly funny?)
Unfortunately, those laughs appeared far too sporadically in the rest of the play. Part of the reason harks back to what I said earlier about melding comedy and tragedy. In Ayckbourn’s best work, you feel like you’re having your heart broken while you’re laughing. Unfortunately, in ‘ACOD’ his characters are a little too ‘stock’ for us to care very much about them.
This is not a criticism of the cast of course, or indeed Director Kay O’Dea, whose stage design made effective use of just a few rostra on an otherwise empty stage to navigate the frequent changes of scene.
Likewise, Karen O’Neill and Roxanna Grave’s meticulous costume design was faultless, with PALOS’ ‘Beggar’s Opera’ outfits being ever-so-slightly dodgy, as befits an amateur operatic society (I particularly enjoyed Ted Washbrook’s insistence on sporting his 1980s specs whilst wearing full 18th century garb!). And the music – courtesy of Stevie Hughes’ recorded piano – worked very well, although some of the singing was a little below par, at least on the night I was there.
Ultimately, cast, crew and director are to be congratulated for doing very well with a play that is, sadly, now past its sell-by date. I just wish Mr. Ayckbourn had worked a little harder with his word processor.