On the day that Alan Ayckbourn’s 84th play (The Truth Will Out) was being announced for production, Richmond Theatre was playing host to The Classic Comedy Company’s touring production of the playwright’s 21st piece Ten Times Table. Written and first performed at a time of growing political unrest in Britain (the late 1970s) there is something deliciously contemporary about the societal divisions which the piece portrays – plus ça change!
Not that this is in any way a serious examination of the state of the nation. Rather, it is a comedy which at times broadens into farce, satirising middle England as embodied in Ayckbourn’s favourite fictional town of Pendon. In the dilapidated and faded grandeur of The Swan Hotel ballroom (expertly realised by long time Ayckbourn designer Michael Holt) a motley collection of locals gathers to form a ramshackle committee intending to plan and execute an historical pageant based on the story of the “Pendon Twelve”. It is, of course, no surprise when events spiral into chaos as well-meaning chairman Ray (Robert Daws on fine form with the sort of character he could play in his sleep) fails to contain the onset of conflicting ideologies which rapidly surface. Representing the two opposing factions are Helen, the chairman’s snobbish reactionary wife (Deborah Grant – imperiously scathing) and local schoolteacher/card carrying Marxist Eric (Craig Gazey) who keeps referring to the proposed pageant as a rally and seeks to hijack the event for his own ends.
Caught in the crossfire are assorted locals among whom the most successfully portrayed is Mark Curry’s fussily pedantic and delightfully tediously realised local councillor Donald. He’s the sort that anyone who has ever sat on a committee will instantly recognise – a man who has nothing better to do than comb through the documentation to spot spelling errors and infelicities of punctuation and relish the moment when he can bring them to everyone’s attention. Donald’s octogenarian mother Audrey is played with relish by Elizabeth Power; her lines and business get some of the best laughs especially as she uncomprehendingly plays the piano while the chaos unfolds in the final scene. The other strong portrayal of the evening is Harry Gostelow as dog owning, gun toting Tim who is co-opted onto the committee by Helen to organise the military element and takes his job far too seriously. Gostelow’s performance gradually reveals the malevolence and mania at the character’s heart (“They’re scum Dixon … scum!”) and he helps to bring the second half to life after what is a mostly sedentary opening act.
The play itself is a little uneven – it is perhaps unfortunate that the first half runs for well over an hour and a quarter while the second half is just thirty minutes or so. It is also evident that some of the actors do not really have enough to get their teeth into. Robert Duncan as permanently sozzled Laurence is inevitably rather one note and Gemma Oaten as Tim’s sister Sophie has very little to challenge her other than to become unaccountably smitten with Eric. However, veteran Ayckbourn collaborator Robin Herford (who originated the role of Donald in Scarborough) directs with a fine eye for detail and, mostly, keeps things bubbling away nicely. However, as already indicated, the various meetings which make up Act One somehow need more life injected into them. The nature of the piece is a group of people sitting round a table meaning it is all too easy for the audience to lose focus. I suspect that played in the round, as originally intended, the longueurs would not be quite so noticeable. There also needs to be a greater sense of chaos in the last scene as the disastrous pageant unfolds offstage, particularly in the appearance of Max Kirkov. The script calls for him to advance on Helen …”with a roar he swoops and picks her up easily…and bears her off through the hotel doors, singing drunkenly”. I am afraid this climactic moment went for nothing.
Despite that, the preceding interplay between the characters, which is generally the meat and drink of any Ayckbourn play, worked well and the glimpses of the committee members’ outside lives helped to retain interest in them as – mostly – rounded characters. I saw the initial London production (Paul Eddington, Julia McKenzie) and feared the play might not have aged well but many of the underlying issues have become pertinent again meaning it is the right time for the play to be given a new lease of life and a reappraisal. I found it interesting to see how the, then, only just fully established playwright was seeking to broaden his horizons in terms of content and ideas. Moving away from his traditional home settings (he has always been a writer who has examined domestic and gender politics) this play seeks to take a slightly wider focus. Ayckbourn commentators very often point to plays from the 1980s (Way Upstream, A Small Family Business) as the start of his interest in the wider political spectrum. Perhaps there needs to be a rethink and that “honour” should now be awarded to Ten Times Table.