Time of My Life
19 - 26 July 2014
Sat 7:45pm, Mon 7:45pm, Tue 7:45pm, Wed 7:45pm, Thu 7:45pm, Fri 7:45pm, Sat 2:45pm, Sat 7:45pm
Do we ever know we may be having the time of our life, or can it only be judged retrospectively?
For his 44th major stage work, Alan Ayckbourn’s Time of My Life centres on a family celebration meal. Set in an eccentric restaurant of indeterminate ethnic origin, family members gather for Laura’s 54th birthday, in what proves to be an enormously funny but also sometimes bleak play - looking at the failure to acknowledge happiness, and the disintegration of relationships. Ayckbourn’s theme is to ask whether we can live in the moment, to appreciate the ‘moment’ when it is happening, i.e. do we ever know we may be having the time of our life, or can it only be judged retrospectively?
The action hops across three time zones - yesterday, today and tomorrow (though not necessarily in that order) and looks at the family’s lives, shuffling the calendar and the clock. This is a play that will resonate with today’s audiences, dealing as it does with a recessionary period in the early 1990’s, which has obvious political relevance today. That is not to say this is a dark play, it is full of comedy - but the themes within it will strike a chord in 2014.
Which playwright’s work is performed more than any other on the English stage? It is Shakespeare, of course, partly because his plays have been around for four hundred years. But second on the list – and ahead of all the others by a mile – is Alan Ayckbourn. His plays, more than seventy of them, are a staple diet for every theatre group in this country and across the English-speaking world. All but a handful of them were first launched on stage at Ayckbourn’s own theatre in Scarborough, from where many went to the West End and Broadway. At first sight, an Ayckbourn play looks and sounds like a comedy. Every one of them is filled with comic effect arising from absurd situations involving disparate people in desperate situations doing daft things. But in nearly all of his plays – especially the later ones – he weaves serious themes into the plot: marital difficulties, small betrayals, fading attraction, they are the kinds of baggage carried by the unhappy characters whose problems are gradually revealed as the narrative unfolds.
Ayckbourn’s genius lies in wrapping these sad revelations in continuous laughter, simply by showing that what is tragic to one individual can be very funny when viewed from the outside by the rest of us.
A very good example of this prolific playwright’s gift for mixing angst with humour is to be found in his Time Of My Life, coming to Lewes Little Theatre in July. The setting is simple - it is a couple of tables in a restaurant and the play revolves around the lives of six people – a couple and their two sons and the sons’ two partners.
At first, it seems like a happy birthday celebration but it becomes clear that there are skeletons in the family cupboard. All this is presented through a series of episodes that go backwards and forwards in time to the moment when the senior couple discover their first feeling of love. As with all Ayckbourn plays, the audience is hooked on to the lives of the characters very early on, making it certain that everyone will want to know what happens in the end.
An absolute master of his craft, Ayckbourn plays offer marvellous opportunities for actors and huge enjoyment for audiences. In the course of an evening, he will likely offer tragedy and comedy, misery and laughter, bitterness and warmth – all presented with clarity and wit.
Ayckbourn – actually Sir Alan, knighted in 1997 – was 75 in April this year and as he reaches this landmark, he can look back on a career of unending success in the theatre.
It continues, with his Small Family Business now playing at the Royal National Theatre in an acclaimed revival and an unknown number of his other plays playing on stages across the land at this very moment.
The multi-awarding winning Sir Alan Ayckbourn CBE has had nearly eighty of his plays produced worldwide. At the age of 75 his latest piece will be premiered at his own Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough later this year. It is frequently claimed that Alan Ayckbourn is the most performed living English playwright, and the second most performed after Shakespeare.
The 44th of his plays, Time of my Life premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough in 1992, in the West End in 1993 and was revived by Ayckbourn in 2013. He has described it as an exploration of “a family’s lives, past, present and future, in a three-way journey through time.” The play traverses yesterday, today and tomorrow and by so doing allows the audience to see the importance of actions being made by the perpetrators who are innocent of the ramifications. We see the shadows forming before they do.
The play is set entirely in one Mediterranean style restaurant where, over the years, the self-made Stratton family have always celebrated family events. Deliberately, Ayckbourn does not specify the nationality of the Essa de Calvi which is owned by Ernesto and run by a gallery of comic waiters (all played by Adrian Bowd). By doing so Ayckbourn says this could be any family experiencing universal issues throughout the passage of a lifetime. Gerry Stratton (Ken Collins), seemingly a jovial successful local builder and businessman, has arranged a family party to celebrate his wife Laura’s (Chrys Tarr) 54th birthday. Joining him is his smooth son Glyn (James Firth-Haydon) who, after an affair, has just patched up his failing marriage with long suffering, sympathetic Stephanie (Lindsey Hodge) to please his parents, and youngest son callow Adam (Jack Bowman) has brought along his desperate to impress hairdresser girlfriend Maureen (Lauren-Nicole Little).
As things progress you realise the family party is both a celebration and a wake. Skeletons come out of the cupboard, relationships shift, falter, fail and are seen in a new light. Tragically, the booze fuelled drive home from the restaurant is the last that Gerry ever makes. Thereafter characters reform and a new course is set as the men lose their way and the women grow in stature and independence.
This was a very strong cast, expertly directed with detail and pace by Gini Comyns. The understanding and execution of Ayckbourn’s tight musical language was disciplined and crucially, entirely did justice to the comedy at the soul of his work.
The scene between Gerry and Laura when they reminisce about when they first got together – he being the ‘dangerous’ teddy boy who she was excited but frightened by until she later felt she could love him because she realised what a softie he was - was especially truthfully and sensitively played by Ken and Chrys.
The faltering relationship between Glyn and Stephanie was poignant to watch, and even though there was some satisfaction in seeing Glyn (James Firth-Haydon), capturing both sides of a flawed character with skill, get his comeuppance, his understated vulnerability was spot on and affecting, while a nicely self-contained Lindsey playing Stephanie, touchingly maintained the care for the man she once adored.
The most obviously comic scenes in the play are those between Adam and Maureen. Although from different social spheres, both are desperate to impress and be loved. Seeing Adam (talented and assured newcomer Jack Bowman) trying to contain the volatile, excitable Maureen (a watchable and inventive Lauren-Nicole Little) delighted the audience.
If LLT were to have awards Adrian Bowd may well have won Comic Actor this year. His five waiter characterisations were great and executed with the necessary perfect comic timing and although broadly played, completely believable. His characterisation of Ernesto was particularly detailed.
It must be mentioned that the superb set by Cordelia Haynes and Adrian Bowd drew applause from the audience. The detail of the Essa de Calvi restaurant was perfectly executed and would have stood out in any professional theatre.
This play is particularly gripping because its canny, inventive structure drives the characters, and you as an observer, towards a painful ending that you hope you won’t reach but that you already know.
“How often do you enjoy an event at the time rather than on reflection or in anticipation?” said Alan Ayckbourn. The “Time of your Life” is often used to describe when you were happiest but didn’t know it, and therefore perfectly illustrates the bitter/sweet, tragic/comic themes characteristic of Ayckbourn’s work.
Gini Comyns directed an accomplished and extremely enjoyable production of a funny but also very painful play.