Menier Chocolate Factory, London
Alan Ayckbourn has always had a fascination with the mechanics of things. His plays, as a colleague once wrote, often resemble the internal intricacies of a Swiss watch. He just likes winding things up, seeing how far he can push dramatic possibilities and the occurrence of things happening simultaneously.
In his 1994 `comedy thriller’, Communicating Doors, it is Time and Time travel that he pushes through the dramatic mouli-mix at the same time throwing together the small matter of class, second chances and life potentials.
In Communicating Doors, which won a heap of awards at its opening, the agent or method for this escapade happens to be a pair of communicating doors between bedrooms in a posh hotel. One way you go forward in time. The other, you go back.
Not so very far from the idea of Dr Who’s Tardis phone booth, Ayckbourn’s communicating doors act as the lever – and escape hatch – for two female characters: Poopay a dominatrix in flight from David Bamber’s psychopathic and disturbed Julian, aide-de-camp to Robert Portal’s wealthy, dying international businessman, Reece; and Imogen Stubbs’ cut-glass accented, middle-class but good sort, Ruella, second wife to Reece. For Ruella, the doors prove the pathway to Fate and a way of changing the future which has already decreed she will be murdered by Julian.
Thus Ayckbourn sets in train a fascinatingly intricate series of criss-crossing Time-and perspective altering narratives. Can Ruella prevent her own murder? What part can Poopay play in all of this? Add in Reece’s first wife, the wealthy, fluffy airhead Jessica (Lucy Briggs-Owen) and hotel security officer in the shape of Matthew Cottle’s gloriously self-important Harold and you have the makings of a small comic gem.
Lindsay Posner’s revival pushes most of the right buttons, adding to the absurdity of characters suddenly losing twenty years as they pass through various eras with a series of studiedly exaggerated wigs. Portal in particular sports at least three as Reece the dying man, then in his prime, a magnificently bushy crop and finally, elegant grey as unexpectedly parental benefactor to Poopay whose life is certainly altered for the better.
If at times the pace becomes unduly hectic, one of Communicating Doors more remarkable features is its female centred heroines. The biggest laugh of the evening comes as all three hang suspended from a balcony – at least, such is the brilliance of Ayckbourn’s stagecraft, we imagine we see the three dangling, hanging on for dear life to save Ruella from her preordained death by Julian pushing her over the balcony.
No wonder Communicating Doors won France’s prestigious Moliere award, given their own traditions of classical French farce with Moliere and Feydeau and their mix of class, sex, and catastrophe. They must have recognised Ayckbourn as practically one of their own with Communicating Doors’ combination of class, sex, death and revolving fortunes.
Now in his 56th year as a playwright, with 79 plays under his belt, Ayckbourn is one of Britain’s more unlikely theatre heroes, his work deceptively middle-brow, populist. But within that seemingly innocuous framework, he manages to consistently serve up unpalatable truths. Here, in amongst the laughs, he touches on prostitution at the higher end of society, the callousness of big business and the dirty work perpetrated by underlings. In the end, though, Communicating Doors seems more a Fairy Godmother story with some scary bits along the way. Sometimes you can change the course of your life.
With a little help from your friends.
Communicating Doors is at the Menier Chocolate Factory to June 27, 2015
First published in Londongrip, May 2015