Better Off Dead - In Scarborough
Andrew Liddle, Features Writer
Tommy Middlebrass is a DCI of the old school, a dedicated northerner with his copper’s feet planted very firmly on the ground. He’s also, as he flits in and out of Better Off Dead, a figment of the imagination of the writer Algy Waterbridge. Played by the great Christopher Godwin - an actor who, incidentally, has been around long enough to have appeared in Z Cars - Algy is on stage all night, seated at his word-processor in the summerhouse, churning out the thirty-third volume of his once-famous tales of detective fiction. Sadly, in the new age no one reads him anymore.
This device is at the heart of Alan Ayckbourn’s eighty-second play and works particularly well, allowing us to penetrate the mind of a writer, follow his creative thought processes – and see, not least, how easily he can become distracted. Liz Jadav makes an agreeably unusual personal assistant, Thelma, all mumsy and very far removed from the modern ideal of polished facilitator. She fusses over her cantankerous employer, scolds him, cajoles him and refuses to flatter his ego. She might be one of the greatest of his distractions, but she is also one of his greatest admirers and Algy knows he can’t do without her. He sees her as the personification of ‘averageness’, but we recognise she is much more. She does just about everything for him, including looking after his wife, Jessica, who is suffering from one of dementia’s several forms.
Eileen Battye - like Godwin a veteran of so many Ayckbourn summers - sensitively portrays a woman fading in and out of understanding, in one of this intriguing play’s delicate areas.
The extremely versatile Leigh Symonds, who earlier in the season was the star comic turn in Ayckbourn’s revival of Joking Apart, again has the audience in stitches, this time as Gus Crewes, a buffoon of a journalist, sporting a wig that might once have been Max Wall’s. He appears not to know his Waterstones from his Wetherspoons and has an unfortunate tendency to discuss his own life rather than his subject’s. Although obviously, in technical terms, something of a caractère artificiel, a necessary device to bring about significant changes in Algy’s fortunes, we warm to him. The type of humour is never quite so broad or so rib-tickingly funny again after his departure and we wait expectantly for his return.
Indeed, Algy’s next visitor, his publisher, Jason, brings with him a rather more sombre mood. His modern, massively insincere corporate speak, nicely judged by Laurence Pears, sounds a note as jarring as that of his helicopter’s propellers. Yes, we are amused by the interplay between the two men, but we see coming the clash of cultures, the genteel old literary world on a collision course with the vulgar new.
Russell Dixon, another great stalwart of northern theatre, might have been born to play Tommy Middlebrass, as brash and cocky but dour and grudging with it, the stereotypical northern detective determined to get his man, a demented serial killer. At times, we move to a mild send-up of the police genre, perhaps, and find ourselves in another of those culture gaps, the old copper at odds with his young colleague, DS Gemma Price (Naomi Petersen) – a southerner, no less - who wants to do everything by the modern politically-correct book of rules, much to Tommy’s disgust.
Ayckbourn’s writing and his direction as ever are superbly synchronised. It almost goes without saying that he has over the years brought the format of theatre-in-the-round to its apotheosis, fashioning some kind of platonic perfection for the bitter-sweet, sad-funny play. We can get so close to the actors that we can hear them breathe, hear their footfall, feel we are in the very scene with them. When Liz Jadav knocks a drink over and breaks the glass, we don’t know whether it’s for real or by accident. Are we laughing out of embarrassment or because we think breaking glass is slapstick? If it came about accidentally, then Godwin did superbly well to extemporise by slugging out of the bottle, which would accord very nicely with his current despondency.
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If Algy has to learn that he cannot live within his own fictive world, Ayckbourn is telling us, reminding himself perhaps, that we cannot live entirely as our imaginations would like us to live. Like all of his plays, the more we think about them the more we find in them. We go home dwelling on them, sadly happy, happily sad, feeling saner and more humane, much richer for the experience.
Noel Coward used to be called the master. It’s about time the accolade passed to Alan Ayckbourn.
Better Off Dead is at the Stephen Joseph Theatre until 6th October.
Better Off Dead - In Scarborough, 12th September 2018, 16:45 PM