Theatre and book reviews by Janice Dempsey
“Ten Times Table” by Alan Ayckbourn
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
I laughed a lot! This ‘romp’ takes a side-swipe at extremes of class and politics, highly relevant today.
As a huge fan of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays, I came to “Ten Times Table” expecting surprises, wit and playful baiting of the English class system. The play’s scenario is perfect for that: a self-appointed committee in a small English town, planning a ‘festival’ to celebrate an 18th century local confrontation between land-owners and land-workers. Over the course of their weekly meetings the team-work their optimistic, peace-making chairman hoped for falls into chaos and farce ensues. (I assume that the title of the play refers to their ten meetings round the table in the dilapidated ballroom of the Swan Hotel.)
The cast of characters is pure Ayckbourn: the fussy, pedantic ex-lawyer Ray (Robert Daws); Eric, the weak “lefty” school teacher with a chip on his shoulder (Craig Gazey); Lawrence, the drunken businessman with a failing business and a breaking marriage (Robert Duncan); Helen the Thatcher-like virago, (Deborah Grant); young, susceptible Sophie (Gemma Oaten) and Philippa (Rhiannon Handy), and the chirpy, peace-making chairman of the committee, Donald (Mark Curry). Add to this list Audrey (Elizabeth Power), the ancient deaf lady assigned to take minutes, and Tim (Harry Gostelow) the aggressive right-wing ex-military farmer who’s co-opted to move the planning forward when the committee’s stymied as such committees often are, and the stage is set for the confrontations of politics and class that Ayckbourn uses to poke fun at all the stereotypical views of his caricatures.
Some of the funniest moments of the play are provided by Mark Curry as the hapless chairman of this dysfunctional committee. His balletic body-language and almost operatic delivery of attempts at reconciliation between warring committee members are brilliant – “We-e-e-e-e-ll … no-o-o-o-w!”
Elizabeth Powers as Audrey is also a delight: necessarily side-lined by deafness, her attempts to understand what’s going on are touching, familiar and funny.
I enjoyed the evening and laughed a lot. I did feel that the play itself was a little static visually, until the last scene presented the farcical outcome of the deliberations of the committee. That said, the performances of all the cast were suitably exaggerated, in keeping with the author’s evident aim of presenting the characters’ stereotypical responses to the situation and to each other, so the pace didn’t drag.
Alan Ayckbourn says of this play, “In more innocent days, it would probably have been subtitled a romp”. First performed in January 1977, with Margaret Thatcher poised to become Prime Minister three years on and several years of social and union unrest behind, Ayckbourn takes a sideways swipe at both ends of the political spectrum and all levels of the English class system, positioning himself as “the man in the middle” of the chaos. And yes, it is a romp!