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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
Damsels in Distress
by Lizzie Loveridge

Justin: She just popped out to look for a fork.
Paige: A what?
Justin: A fork
Paige: Oh I thought you said something else.
-- in RolePlay

Damsels in Distress
Bill Champion as Sam and Alison Pargeter as Rosie in FlatSpin (Photo: Tony Bartholomew)
Alan Ayckbourn has written over sixty plays for the theatre. In addition he has worked as an actor and a director and he runs his own theatre in his native Yorkshire. Maybe it is because of the size of Ayckbourn's oeuvre and the erroneous belief that such quantity cannot bring quality, that it has become fashionable in certain quarters of the business to sneer at Britain's most prolific living playwright as if he were to theatre what Barbara Cartland is to romantic novels. Don't listen to these foolishly pretentious creatures!

The three plays that form the Damsels in Distress trilogy are not really a trilogy in any accepted sense but three plays designed by the author to be played in repertory, that is using the same seven actors in different roles and showing in the same theatre as a part of the same season. Ayckbourn is always experimenting with theatrical form and here his plays are designed to enhance the experience of the actors, to keep them fresh and so deliver exciting theatre for the audience. The only connection between the plays is that all three feature a woman in a predicament, the same set, an apartment in London's Docklands -- and all demonstrate Ayckbourn's great skill in portraying the English middle classes at their most ridiculous and amusing. The three plays do not build on each other, do not have to be seen in any particular order and are not intended to have a single theme. I saw them in a single day but, g iven no time constraints, would have been just as happy to see them on different evenings.

GamePlan is the riches to rags story of an ex-dot.com millionaire divorcée Lynette (Jacqueline King) and her schoolgirl daughter, Sorrel (Saskia Butler). Aided by her friend, the gormless Kelly, (Alison Pargeter), Sorrel sets herself up as a call girl through the internet. Widowed dry cleaner, Leo Tyler (Robert Austin) Sorrel's first client falls ill. Police duo (Tim Faraday and Beth Tuckey) investigate and journalist Troy Stephens (Bill Champion) smells a story.

In FlatSpin out of work actor Rosie Seymore is flat sitting when she gets involved in a scam to entrap a drug dealer. Rosie and one of the agents Sam Berryman (Bill Champion) fall for each other, seeing sexual inference in every situation. Rosie meets Maurice Whickett (Robert Austin) the controller of the operation, tough police trainee Tracy Taylor (Saskia Butler) and self absorbed, martial arts freak, Tommy Angel (Tim Faraday).

Finally in RolePlay, the flat sees the preparations for a dinner party for computer programmer Justin Lazenby (Bill Champion) and his live in girlfriend, Julie-Ann Jobson (Saskia Butler) so that their parents can meet. Paige Petite (Alison Pargeter), a gangster's moll literally drops in via the balcony, swiftly followed by Mickey Rale, (Tim Faraday) Paige's gun toting, ex-boxer minder. Julie-Ann's solid, Northern garden centre chain owning parents Derek and Dee (Robert Austin and Beth Tuckey) arrive to meet Arabella Lazenby, Justin's lush of a mother (Jacqueline King), but the uninvited guests make their own impact on the evening.

I particularly liked the tension between mother and daughter in Game Plan. The relationship has the controlling teenager reprimanding her mother while the mother acts peevishly, complains and resorts to emotional blackmail. Painful but true, I can recognise myself in both roles. Once again Ayckbourn shows his ability to pick up the language of the shifting power struggle between parent and child, as the child approaches adulthood. "I'm a teenager. I get mood swings! Right!" At the end of the first act there is a dramatic shift from light comedy as we become aware that Sorrel is badly out of her depth, that prostitution is not the easy money she had envisaged. Ayckbourn does not linger there but turns this pathos to black comedy in an Ortonesque leap. I found the middle play FlatSpin, the least credible and least satisfying, with all the problems of a middle child, the alfalfa in the sandwich so to speak. At times it seems like an Austin Powers movie to be harking back to the spy adventure television series of the early Seventies. Much of the humour depends on the nookie for gnocchi and plucking for f*cking double entendre. The last play RolePlay, obstensibly about a couple planning their wedding, has a violent subtext which makes it more dangerous and very much a part of the modern era. All three made me laugh out loud and all three are delightfully observed social comedies.

The seven actors are reprising the roles they took when the plays were launched in Scarborough. In a showcase, Alison Pargeter has three very different and plum parts. She is very amusing as the gawky schoolgirl Kelly, inept maid to child prostitute, Sorrel. Kelly's confusion at the noms de plume (Who are Kelly, Karen and Kylie?) they have agreed to adopt, is a running joke. In the middle play she is Rosie, the ditsy actress who had just missed the lead in a BBC classic serial and desperate for some rumpypumpy and finally the complex Paige, working class girl and ex-lap dancer trapped in a violent relationship. Saskia Butler is excellent too as Sorrel, the schoolgirl who has learnt too much on the internet, sadistic cadet policewoman Tracy and the designing Julie-Ann whom Justin realises may be turning into her own mother. Jacqueline King steals the humour in RolePlay as the alcoholic mother in an Absolutely Fabulous performance. Several of the characters made me shudder: the implicit violence of Tim Faraday's policeman in GamePlan with his Bible quoting, prophetess of doom, sidekick (Beth Tuckey), (prompting the question "Are you the police or the Jehovah's Witnesses?"); Tim Faraday again as the repulsive, sexually conceited muscle man in FlatSpin and Saskia Butler's keen and bloodthirsty young policewoman.

Ayckbourn's direction is impeccable. I liked the synchronised scene in the middle play when Rosie warms up for her role in the sting operation in the manner taught at drama school with much shaking of limbs and limbering up of lips, and Tommy simultaneously does his T'ai Chi and Kung Fu preparation. Roger Glossop's set remains identical and appropriate throughout, Mick Hughes' lighting changes the mood and there is music played at the end of acts as the stage is thrown into darkness. Underlying the joy of Ayckbourn's comedy is the pain of the human condition. We know the situations are fantastic but in them we recognise our own foibles and it does us good to laugh at ourselves.

LINKS
to some of Curtain Up's reviews of Alan Ayckbourn Plays
Absent Friends
By Jeeves
House and Garden
Communicating Doors
Taking Steps
Comic Potential
Things We Do For Love
Woman In Mind

Damsels in Distress GamePlan. . . FlatSpin. . . RolePlay
Written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn

Set Designer: Roger Glossop
With: Robert Austin, Saskia Butler, Bill Champion, Tim Faraday, Jacqueline King, Alison Pargeter, Beth Tuckey
Lighting Designer: Mick Hughes
Sound Designer: Paul Groothuis
Choreographer: Sheila Carter
Costume Design: Christine Wall
Running time: Each play - Two hours 25 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 890 1103
Booking to 30th November 2002. Reduction of one third if booking all three plays at once.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 7th September 2002 performances at the Duchess Theatre, Catherine Street, London WC2
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