Alan Ayckbourn’s new play Life of Riley is familiar territory for him. There are three middle class couples who all have relationship issues to resolve, an offstage central character, scenes which overlap, some clever gags and plenty of painful humour. In many ways he has gone back to what he does best, dissecting middle class mores and sexual politics within a clever structure and making us laugh at a character even as we feel their pain. All three women have been involved with the offstage George at one time or another and now that he has been diagnosed with terminal cancer this throws their present relationships into disarray, as their past feelings for him resurface in the face of his demands for support. We are never sure whether George is being mischievous, irresistibly charming, or wanting to put a few things right before he leaves this world (all three possibilities are hinted at during the play) but whatever his intentions the effect his actions have on the three couples, for better or worse, forms the basis of the plot. The offstage character is one of Ayckbourn’s favourite devices and he has used it before to marvellous comic effect, especially in Absurd Person Singular (which is one of my favourite plays) but George Riley is really the central character of Life of Riley and that is a first. It takes a master of dramatic structure, like Ayckbourn, to make that work, and he certainly does, although George never became quite as vivid to me as I would have liked him to be. The way that he manages the action however, with three gardens on stage using simple details to delineate time and space is a joy, for example fairy lights in a tree up in the lighting rig, a large plastic crate of glasses and loud music coming out from behind one of the voms are enough to make a convincing extravagant sixteenth birthday party for instance. He knows the space of the Stephen Joseph and its possibilities intimately and not a word of dialogue or a moment of time is wasted. His writing has mellowed a little since he skewered the pretensions of the middle classes with such devastating accuracy back in the seventies and while this is a shame it also gives a wistful poignancy to some of the exchanges which is very effective. As a director of his own work of course he is supreme. He understands his talent, his actors and his theatre space perfectly. You know exactly what you are going to get, and while this makes a new Ayckbourn play something to look forward to it also means that it may well be just a little bit predictable.
The characters in Life of Riley are nicely contrasted and all of them are very well played, especially the women. Ayckbourn is always very acute and sympathetic when he writes women characters and there were times when the women in the audience were laughing in recognition and their men folk were looking sheepish and maybe just a tiny bit aggrieved. Laura Doddington was wonderful as Tamsin, a well meaning, bruised, young woman who was by no means as airheaded as her taste in clothes suggested. Liza Goddard’s Kathryn is a sharp and sometimes cruel woman who uses this front to hide the pain of a miserable marriage. Her constant griping and controlling is her way of asking her husband to take a lead. Monica, George’s ex wife, is played delicately by Laura Howard. It is the least showy of the three women’s parts and needs a subtle touch which she provides beautifully. The male characters are each hapless in their own ways. Jack, played by Ben Porter, is prey to his emotions and ready to follow any wind that blows, Colin is a slightly inadequate and very boring doctor who is faced with a marriage that fizzled out years ago- he probably has no idea exactly when, and Simeon played by Jamie Kenna is a farmer whose heart of gold remains hidden from the world in general thanks to his inarticulacy.
A very entertaining and thoughtful piece of theatre then, which the almost full house of mostly older theatregoers at the Stephen Joseph lapped up with great pleasure. It’s always good to have a new Ayckbourn play back on stage here in Scarborough. He has given the town a far greater gift over many years than it understands or deserves.