Review by Will Motley
Alan Ayckbourn’s 2008 play Life and Beth is a fine example of his writing, set in a middle class home with insensitive people treading on each others’ toes. It was his first play after his stroke in 2006, which he had thought would end his writing altogether – and it builds on his earlier two ‘ghost’ plays Haunting Julia and Snake in the Grass, though it is lighter in tone. All three involve bereaved family members being haunted by a dominant character. In Life and Beth it is the husband of the put-upon Beth, who not only appears and talks to her but is channelled through other characters, notably their son Martin, who subliminally continues his oppression and bullying.
The production last week at the Riverside Arts Theatre was a triumph by the Shepperton Players. A small cast of six, ably and intelligently directed by Emma Dow, romped through the play with energy and subtlety – occasionally on thin ice but with plenty of laughter and sure-footed understanding of the layers within the writing.
Opening on Christmas eve with a classic Ayckbourn two-handed scene, the play introduced us to Beth, widow of Gordon, and Connie his sister. A series of barbed comments establish the insensitivities and personal dynamics of the two, Beth still emerging from 33 years of Gordon’s shadow – and Connie not hearing her.
Gill Lambourn (Beth) held the play together with a skilful and intelligent performance. Onstage throughout, she perfected the frustrated sotto voce asides that were both funny and affecting (“I feel like a sock on a one legged sailor”). She is taken for granted by everyone else, who have their view of how she should be, and blithely expect to her to obediently conform to it. Her character develops as her independence emerges and culminates in a great moment when she says yes to life without Gordon.
Anne Wheeldon (Connie) revealed her damaged past as she recounted how her parents had promoted Gordon to senior sibling and doted on him. She conveyed the hurt and the resulting insensitivity well and in later scenes became a splendidly chaotic drunk – and a source of much laughter. Ayckbourn writes so well for women and this part is believable despite the horror. Wheeldon’s performance grew in confidence and embraced the grotesquery of her pain.
The vicar, David, himself recently bereaved, appears to offer consolation to Beth – and as the object of the affection of the increasingly desperate Connie. Robert Johnson understood that character and embodied the well-meaning cleric who imposed on Beth the script of his own sense of loss, oblivious to her actual feelings. His use of bludgeoning sympathy was perhaps a little underplayed – Ayckbourn writes him as a ghastly example of theatrical grief and makes his (awful) prayer the device that summons Gordon’s ghost. An extended riff about Gordon’s accident with a lad and a ladder was only partially successful, but deliciously ironic given Gordon’s profession as a Health and Safety Inspector.
Beth’s son Martin, played by Alan Johnson, arrives with his girlfriend Ella (Emma Heaton) and we begin to see something of Gordon in him. He embodied the thoughtlessness and self-absorption of his father, recreating mannerisms and trampling on his mother’s feelings. How she didn’t kick him after he had said ‘knock-knock’ for the fourth time, despite her telling him not to because Gordon used to do it – I don’t know!
Emma Heaton had no words, at least onstage, but still managed to upstage everyone to great comic effect – especially during the pontificating vicar’s prayer. Her expressions of alarm as she began to perceive the personal dynamics of the family, her sympathy for Beth and the realisation that a life with Martin would likely have the same destination, needed no lines to be strongly felt. I’m sure she had great fun offstage in the kitchen where disasters ensued as she dropped pans and wailed volubly, improbably explained away by Martin: “Most of the women I go out with start crying sooner or later.”
Act I ended with a great coup de theatre: Martin fiddling with the Christmas tree lights so that, inevitably, the fuses blow – and when light returns the spectre of Gordon’ is revealed in his usual place at the table.
The second Act, set during the night and later on Christmas Day introduces us directly to Gordon, played by Derek Stringer. He excellently portrayed the mean-spirited lack of imagination of the Health and Safety Inspector, pursuing his own view while impervious to others. Ayckbourn had fun with this, getting revenge on the Council bureaucrats who have plagued his Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough: Gordon announces that he is reorganising the afterlife’s dangerous and outdated procedures and introducing spreadsheets to heaven. His relish in apportioning the blame for the parlous state of heaven is summarised in the line: “It goes higher – I’ll deal with that later.” Gordon also reveals that the vicar’s prayer, sending him back to haunt Beth, was ‘intercepted at committee level’. This expression of the unlimited ambition of the small-minded official is significant and perhaps this scene needed to a bit stronger.
The central theme of Life and Beth is bullying. Not conventional thuggery but the subtle and often unintended control of others through insensitivity and a blunt tunnel vision and the whole cast understood this and each added to it; clearly the result of much hard work and collaboration between the cast and the director. The energy and clarity of the performance never flagged for a moment.
The setting was conventional and permitted the various bits of stage business to flow successfully without getting in the way – no doors to wobble the set – and it was mainly well-lit (with the exception of one black hole) including backlighting, use of colour and effects. In the final part the ghost of Gordon is sent packing (a humorously subversive use of prayer) and the missing cat returns – all pure Blithe Spirit (which Ayckbourn has said was the inspiration for this play). There were fine touches all through the play – the wilting lettuce, the crashing pans, the flashing red reindeer, pictures and mantel ornaments flying about and even a remotely sinking cushion in the cat basket to signify the ghost’s return.
The theatre was almost full on the first night – and the audience reaction was positive. Gill Lambourn’s performance was the central rock of it all – and the programme sadly noted that this was her last work with the Shepperton Players as she will be moving away from the area – I am sure she will be much missed!