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Vol. 3 No. 3 Apr 2004

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Laugh Across The Atlantic
Page 2

Right after The Odd Couple closed out its run at the DBS Arts Centre, in swept Alan Ayckbourn’s A Chorus of Disapproval. There is a certain consonance to this, as American critics have often referred to Ayckbourn as the “British Neil Simon”. This tends to irk British critics considerably, as the Brits feel their own boy (today Sir Alan) is clearly more sophisticated, polished and brings much more depth to the table than does the New Yorker.

What Ayckbourn certainly does bring is a surer grasp of stagecraft, as the native Londoner started working in theatre during his schooldays, then went into professional theatre right after leaving school at the age of 17. In addition to his prodigious writing abilities, Ayckbourn has acted in and directed a good many productions, including those involving his own works.

This intimate knowledge of the backstage as well as the page is what Ayckbourn brings to his 1984 opus, A Chorus of Disapproval. Set in a small provincial town soaked in the ethos of British suburbia, an area Sir Alan has long staked out as his special domain, A Chorus is a cool look at this milieu as the first tappings of Thatcherism starts to seep into it. And whereas the dominant tone of any early Neil Simon is in-your-face New Yorker, the governing tone of an Ayckbourn piece is apologetic suburban British.

In this play, Sir Alan drops/swoops in on an amateur light operatic group preparing to mount what we might call the first major Gay play. Not that the show deals with homoeroticism, but it was written by John Gay, an early 18th century British playwright and poet. This work, The Beggar’s Opera is considered by many to actually be the world’s first musical, as it contains much more spoken text than any major opera before or for a long time after it.

(The Beggar’s Opera was the inspiration for the Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill classic Die Dreigroschenoper, better known in the Anglophone world as The Threepenny Opera. The latter was the source of the perennial favourite tune, “Mack the Knife”.)

In Ayckbourn’s suburban limbo, the amateurs of this lyric operatic society group have taken on a task that seems a few sizes too big for them. The way they bumble and stumble to a moderate but totally unexpected success is superficially the main concern of this play, but more important to the drama are all the backstage machinations that go on as the company moves to their final production.

The main catalyst for all the nasty business that transpires is Guy Jones, Leeds native and recent widower whose company has just moved him to the small town of Pendon. In the course of his brief Pendon residence, Jones climbs the rickety ladder of provincial success, moving from one bit part to a slightly bigger role all the way till he finally takes on the work’s central role, the robber king Macheath. Along his path to filling this part, the seemingly guileless Jones also beds two married women (including the wife of the show’s director) and inadvertently leads to huge financial losses for a flock of local businesspeople (including the other cuckold, who willingly gave his blessing to Jones’ doing/carrying out his conjugal duties for him).

No one could claim that A Chorus of Disapproval is Ayckbourn’s best work, but it does show a skilled dramatist working his craft even when the wells of inspiration are not at full flow. (It is also, interestingly enough, the only Ayckbourn play to date to have given a film version.) While not filled with great insights or sparkling, unforgettable characters, this Chorus is peopled with humorous types more pathetic than sympathetic who keep us involved for the full course of the evening and present a brief cavalcade of human emptiness.

One obvious difference between Ayckbourn and Simon is that the latter laces his earlier oeuvre with sparkling one-liners that can be easily lifted in contest, quoted in reviews, used to spark up daily repartee. By contrast, Ayckbourn’s comic lines are thoroughly embedded in the characters that say them and the context in which they appear. For example, when Daffyd takes Guy’s request for a drink after their initial meeting, he casually asks, by way of bonding with the newcomer, “Gin and tonic? Is that what they’re drinking in Leeds these days?” This thoughtless remark, which sounds so plain and flat reading it here, is actually funny in context and helps define the upcoming problems in the relationship between the two men.

Sometimes Ayckbourn will throw in a paradoxical aphorism that could well have been written by Oscar Wilde. For example, Daffyd on women: “They don’t like to be taken by surprise - unless they know well in advance.” The same authority on theatrical casting: “Doing The Beggar’s Opera without a Macheath would be a bit of a non-starter, even for Peter Brook.”

But for the most part, A Chorus of Disapproval succeeds as far as it does on its keen observance of the society it dissects and the humour arising from the tools of its dissection.

The appeal of a show about an amateur theatrical society for a real-life amateur theatrical society is obvious - and fraught with perils. Fortunately, Singapore’s Stage Club dodged most of these perils and came up with one of their most successful productions in the last two years.

Director Jeremy Samuel does a thoroughly commendable job here in bringing Ayckbourn’s work to life, even if his cast was a mix of Britons, French and locals. Samuel’s staging brought out the ideas and tones of the work in a persuasive manner, and he kept the action moving at an effective for most of the show - no easy task with this play. Along these lines, the scene changes were wisely handled by having the pianist play some fitting music to fill the time of transitions.

Just about every one of Samuels’ choices was correct, from the very simple set to the array and disarray of the characters. The stripped stage serves as a most fitting set on several grounds. On a literal level, it depicts a typical theatre company’s working conditions during rehearsal period. The realistic element here includes actors leaving rehearsals or gathering places by sauntering out the back door of the DBS Arts Centre into Merbau Road. On the metaphorical levels, the bleak stage proves a fine corollary to the bleak spiritual lives these suburbanites inhabit as well as the provincial limbo they inhabit.

Not everything in this production is assured and polished. The fight between Daffyd and Crispin Usher, for instance, is stagy and artificial. But to be fair, we should note that stage fights are difficult if not quite dangerous to all but well-trained actors. (The Stage Club, again, is an amateur society, albeit it a rather good one.)

For A Chorus of Disapproval to work well, you need strong anchors in those two key roles of Guy Jones and Daffyd Llewellyn, and that’s exactly what the Stage Club provided with Francois Cornu and Philip McConnell. Cornu shuffles about rather innocently, absorbing all the favours poured on him by the townspeople. And although he’s actually French, he does an admirable job handling the English accent.

If Cornu brought one small drawback to the role, it was in terms of physiognomy: while he is a rather pleasant looking fellow, Cornu is in no way the head-turningly handsome Guy that would have all the women of Pendon drawn to him at just a glance. But then again, in an amateur theatrical society, you can’t have it all.

More interestingly, as Cornu plays Jones we follow along admiringly until, at the end, we’re not quite sure if Jones was just a complete innocent fallen amongst predatory egos/suburban wolves whose very innocence allows him to watch the wolves wound themselves or if his naïve, all too accommodating veneer hides a wonderfully clever manipulator who’s been leveraging for everything he gets from bed time with the local lovelies to the prize role in the production.

As Daffyd, McConnell served up what was clearly the best performance of the evening. This Daffyd goes about the constantly distracted look of the destructively self-absorbed. We’re as much amused as appalled by this inconsiderate bastard, and when we gets his comeuppance, we feel a satisfaction and then a wipe of relief as we discover that he’s so self-absorbed even his own wife’s infidelity can’t prick him that deeply.

As Daffyd’s emotionally neglected wife, Grace Wan, who was quite strong in last year’s production of Agnes of God, was much less so in this production. One small shortcoming is that Wan is better with the North American variant of English than with a British version. More significantly, she rarely took full control of this role. At the beginning she showed insecurity by rushing her lines and looking embarrassed. Later on, Wan seemed still to be trying to achieve a full focus on the character of Hannah. Only at the play’s conclusion (and interestingly, the foreshadowing of it in the opening scene) did Wan’s acting talents come through clearly. (Her singing talents were ample whenever she raised her voice in song.) At these moments, Wan used a mere look, an embarrassed spill of words to express/suggest the poignancy at the heart of Hannah. It is then that we see that Hannah is one of the play’s only two innocents: perhaps, indeed, its only true innocent.

The supporting characters are almost without exception types who would not even recognise innocence or goodness if they were rammed up their nostrils. Sally Anderson played Fay Hubbard, the town’s resident man-eater, with a full-frontal attack; it worked, telling us that this Fay is so assured of her own allure that she can’t be bothered with wasting time on wiles and suggestion. Nick Perry was also assured as her husband Ian, comically chilling in the way he discards any scruples to get the cheap rewards he expects as his due.

Deborah Berger-North was fine as Rebecca. Cool and deliberate, this Rebecca measures every step, decision and risk for its cost-effectiveness. Standouts amongst the rest of the talented cast were Jim Hill, Peter Lugg and Mary Anne Cornu, who had just stepped in on the role of Bridget Baines, the owner of the pub where the troupe gathers. And we would be amiss if we did not offer a nod to Jonathan Ang for his riffs as the company’s piano player.

The closing lines from this play’s closing song, fittingly lifted right from the close of Gay’s original, are “But think of this maxim, and put off your sorrow, / The wretch of today may be happy tomorrow.” As this play wraps up, it might be taken as either coolly ironic or a wry encapsulation of Mr Jones’ fortunes. Or an encouragement to the members of The Stage Club who have not always done so well in the past; they should all have been happy with this show.

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QLRS Vol. 3 No. 3 Apr 2004


About Richard Lord
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  Other Extra Media articles in this Issue

Love Is All You Knead
Richard Lord reviews February drama.

Clearly, A Mark of Some Distinction
Richard Lord on The Gospel According To Mark.

Related Links

Singapore Repertory Theatre
External link.

The Stage Club
External link.

The unofficial Neil Simon homepage
External link.

Neil Simon profile
External link.

Another Neil Simon profile
External link to PBS.

Interview with Neil Simon
External link to Bookpage.

The official Alan Ayckbourn website
External link.

Interview with Alan Ayckbourn
External link.

Chat with Alan Ayckbourn
External link to the Stephen Joseph Theatre.


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