A CHORUS OF DISAPPROVAL
by Alan Ayckbourn
This play, one of Ayckbourn’s brilliantly involved comedies, made its debut in Scarborough in 1984 and then transferred to the National Theatre. It needs the feel of a company playing very much together, a sense of community, and an understanding of the amateur operatic tradition. Since you left your “ancestral” home, I have mentioned many times approvingly, how you have come to terms with the vast space of your new surroundings, and how you have made them work for your purposes, and heroically adapted them to your needs. You have been very brave in your choices of play and now have realised that you have all come home again. Skilled direction has helped, so well done to all involved in any way, no matter how small, in proving that almost anything is possible in amateur theatre.
Much of the pleasure in this play is the skilful weaving together of themes: how innocence is destroyed and civic corruption spread. Gary Jones, a lonely widower joins a local amateur society to play a small part, Crook-Fingered Jack, in “The Beggar’s Opera”. Since he is a nice bloke who can’t say “no”, he finds himself having concurrent affairs with Hannah, the Director’s wife and Fay, a married cast member who would perhaps nowadays be described as “a bit of a swinger”. As Guy is also assumed to know something of a dubious secret land deal engineered by his employer, his naivety proves his undoing, and although he is promoted throughout the production for various reasons, until he ends up playing the hero, MacHeath, he becomes socially ostracized.
It was played on a virtually open stage, mainly black, with all-purpose box-like constructions i.e. doors etc CS, a piano, stool and chair SL. Each scene was minimally furnished e.g. small couch (Dafydd’s house), small tea shop table and chairs (Guy and Hannah), bar area (after rehearsal scene) etc., all set and removed as necessary by David Griffiths, as stage manager, with the help of the cast. All this activity was provided and struck by actors, proved to be minimal but effective and gave significance, and ample space for movement and choreography, plus the singing numbers. The overall impression was of a rehearsal space, typical of amateur theatre, and was quickly and effectively transformed into scenes that were elsewhere. There were colourful costumes for the cast of “The Beggar’s Opera” and other changes reflected the characters suitably.
This is a very challenging play for both performers and director alike - a combination of comedy and psychological insight finely balanced. With splendid characters; many opportunities for imaginative direction and playing, and requiring good singing from the cast.
Guy Jones was played by Nicholas Eccles and he gave a confident performance as the diffident and rather coy, Guy, who rose meteorically through the male cast until he reached the heroic MacHeath. Although the singing was not particularly strong, the strength of the performance lay in the playing of the comedy. Excellent timing and delivery, he enjoyed many good moments on stage, especially his scenes with Hannah and Fay, and his creation of his other characters. Well done.
Michael Owen played Welsh Director, Dafydd and initially the Welshness seemed somewhat underplayed, but once he had given us his version of “All Through the Night”, he rushed through a range of emotions from humour, despair, sarcasm and the inevitable histrionics to a quiet modesty and a certain vulnerability. Never one to let the pace drop , Michael breezed through the production organising, criticizing, commenting on, worrying his cast till his confrontation with Guy about his affair with wife Hannah. Confident and assured, his performance produced excellent comic moments and touches as this tortured man strove to get his production together.
Aimee Chase, produced a consistent comic performance as the rather brash and coarse Bridget Baines. She gave great support, from throwing Crispin out of her father’s pub, through her passionate embrace with him, to her confrontational threat to Linda, there were many comic moments, such as her awkwardness as prompt, and her fight with Linda.
Dafydd’s wife, Hannah, was played by Esme Mather, who gave us some memorable moments with Guy, where their kindred spirits seemed to unite them, and her long suffering and unhappy life with Dafydd made her turn to Guy for those tender moments, lacking in her life. Equally at home in her fight with Fay over their amour, there was some super sensitive playing,
John Wilkins played Mr Ames, the pianist, who played for rehearsals and despite a lack of lines, he gave a distinctly positive characterisation serving his purpose well.
Sarah Kirk played Enid Washbrook, and established such a good rapport with Keith McEvoy, playing her husband, that their ability to finish each other’s sentences showed clearly how close and inseparable they had become. As a character Enid is shy, insecure, almost apologetic but willing to please. A strong, supporting role that enhanced the quality of the production.
Her husband, Ted, played by Keith McEvoy, is the sort of member every company has. Eager, willing to please, reliable, apologetic, wimpish but at the end of the day, not over blessed with talent. Keith managed to convey all these traits effectively in tune with Enid, and there were nice moments of comedy within.
Simon Griffiths gave a super performance as Jarvis Huntley-Pike in a detailed, studied and skilful characterisation with genuine moments of hilarity. whether in his dealings with Guy. or his association with the group generally. Timing and delivery were spot on and, as a self-made man, he made sure that everyone knew his roots and background. His long running joke about Guy’s Scottish ancestry was well played and the entire role was an example of superb timing and the pointing of the comedy. Well played.
Julie Burrell, as Fay, delighted in meeting and seducing the unsuspecting Guy. She put her fatal attraction to good use in a comic and completely uninhibited way when she invited him round. and used the situation with skill and good comic timing. A strong, full of life performance.
Together with Fay, her husband, Ian, played by Andrew Chase, made a handsome couple unashamedly living out their “wife swapping” activities. The scene in which he chatted to Guy was nicely done with comic moments throughout, and the anger, the indifference, the deviousness, were all effectively done.
Rebecca, Jarvis’s wife, was played by Kath Harris, and her posh voice, lapsing occasionally into northern tones, created a woman of some substance. She was very much an old established member of the company, and her domineering manner, and her championing of various causes, were all well done. Her rather devious nature was seen to good effect in the scene in her garden with Guy. Here there was excellent playing with a very good voice and control in performance.
Crispin Usher was played by Jay Hollows. Physical and strong looking, he was a prize to be fought over by both Bridget and Linda and he was enjoying all their attention. Full of his own importance, trying to be as dashing as MacHeath, and being aggressive with Dafydd, he created a character that, whilst he may not have received our approval, he certainly received our recognition as an actor.
Linda Washbrook, the daughter of Enid and Ted, was played by Maye Battersby. She had some nice moments in the production, especially in the dealings with Bridget, as she fought for the attentions and charm of Crispin. The ferocity of the fight between the two of them was particularly good - an object lesson of movement, pretend violence and realistic intent. There were one or two moments when the character might have been allowed to surface more strongly, but overall, well done.
“A Chorus of Disapproval” cannot fail to entertain. It is a very funny play, cleverly written with a selection of weird and wonderful characters providing opportunities for strong characterisation. This particular version was in the experienced hands of Mark Rosenthal, as director, who made sure it had plenty of pace. It contained some excellent performances, strong supporting roles, and the background of intrigue (Jarvis’s plot of land)” was given a clear focus. The singing varied in terms of quality; costumes were colourful and in period; and the whole was tightly packaged together to provide a quite memorable evening of theatre. David Griffiths glued it all together, seemingly effortlessly, but I’m sure it wasn’t; David Groves looked after the sound and lighting. Well done everyone involved in the production, whether on or off stage. You have proved once again that “all the world’s a stage”, “the play’s the thing” and “we are such as dreams are made on”.