Confusions, Union Theatre SE1
Ayckbourn’s play is laughs and pure heart-ayck
It is often said that, after Shakespeare, Alan Ayckbourn is the most performed playwright in Britain. Certainly, you don’t have to scour your local paper very hard to stumble across a production of one of his many plays. Yet this near-flawless production of Confusions at the Union Theatre proves how actors need impeccable comic timing, extreme sensitivity to one another, and an ability to portray at times unbearable human suffering, to really make sense of Ayckbourn’s deceptively frothy plays.
Confusions is a collection of five vignettes, some loosely interlinked, and all presenting one overriding issue – the loneliness and selfishness of human existence. All of the marriages we see exist, but have unsealable cracks in them. Each party only thinks of themselves, and everyone, in turn, inflicts suffering upon another. This is most acute in the last, and most stylised, of the sequence, where characters switch between park benches, subsequently switching between being intolerant and unsympathetic listeners to being people who just need to talk to someone. Despite the fact that we all need someone to listen to us, Ayckbourn points out, which one of us is actually prepared to do the listening?
The delightful Union Theatre, which sprouted and was nurtured under an old railway arch in Southwark, is the ideal environment in which to watch Ayckbourn’s plays and, more importantly, a production of this calibre. The nine actors show their versatility in a variety of roles, but are used sparingly enough for there to be an element of suspense over who will be cast in each role. All beautifully understated and thoroughly believable, each character makes perfect sense, and the actors impressively pace their decline from ‘normality’ to nervous breakdown.
Howard Teale makes a desperate Harry, beginning as a super-smooth fashion salesman, away from his family on ‘business’, and trying to chat up the likeable Paula (Claire Marlowe) and the deliciously unsentimental Bernice (Charlotte Milchard). He ends as a pathetic drunken mess, so bent on getting laid that he reiterates his hotel room number in every other sentence. You crack up, you cry, and you cringe for him, which is the essence of Ayckbourn.
Gillian McCafferty plays a harassed mother of young children, tolerating Harry’s prolonged absences, but dissolves into a woman who addresses adults as she does her toddlers. In a bizarre and hilarious scene, we watch in horror as she insists her married neighbours (played excellently by Aimi Percival and Ben Neale) finish their milk and orange juice, and make up, before they can go home. In another sketch, Andrew Piper plays a stiff-upper-lipped Pearce who is interrogated by his wife in a restaurant about a suspected affair he is conducting. It transpires the guilty woman is only sat at the next table. And, in another, we witness a local village fete descend into chaos as an unwanted pregnancy is announced over the supposedly defunct sound system, the guest of honour gets lost in a storm, the vicar accidentally jams the tea urn, and the boy scouts tumble from some unstable scaffolding.
With highlight after highlight, this production boasts fine direction from Ben de Wynter, a humbly creative set and props, and brilliantly gauged acting. With some lovely Ayckbourn touches brought skilfully to light – for example, the restaurant waiter (Michael Mills) finding himself sandwiched in the midst of most awkward domestic tiffs, the two couples at dinner having heated arguments in mime, and visual offstage depictions of the tearaway boy scouts – this feels like the first time I’ve seen Ayckbourn just as it should be: absurd, hilarious, and desperately bleak.