My friend Kim is in Richmond this week, coming to the end of a lengthy tour in Alan Ayckbourn's newest play Life of Riley. I caught the show on Wednesday and then with Kim for coffee today. Ayckbourn himself has directed the work and stylistically it's a bit of a throwback to the days of regional reps. Simple staging, clear set ups and broad comedy. There are stalwarts in the cast and Kim said at times the rehearsals seemed to just take care of themselves with Sir Alan using anecdote of previous productions and his own early career to explain effects, line readings or business. Lots of nodding and suggestions from the actors most of which seem to have been taken on.
The play itself, though brilliantly crafted, feels tired. Kim plays Colin the doctor husband of the unseen George Riley's former lover Kathryn, played by Lisa Goddard. George is dying of cancer and to take his mind off it he's encouraged to take part in a play performed by the local amateur dramatic society. Here he has a flirtatious affair with Tamsin, the wife of his best friend Jack, which in turn leads Jack to seek out George's former wife Monica to persuade her to temporarily leave her new lover Simeon to come back and nurse her ex-husband. It's clever enough and, with George invisible off stage, each character in turn is given opportunity to reveal their insecurity and loneliness, whilst pretending everything is going swimmingly.
There's a long tradition of this kind of thing in British situation comedy. Where the decent, but cowardly, middle class are exposed for a lack of intellectual and emotional ambition. The aim is to leave us fearful of our own mediocrity and to encourage us to avoid falling into the same indecisive trap. It works best when the writer is merciless - think David Brent in The Office.
Ultimately though Life of Riley doesn't carry enough of a punch. For all the emotional fragility of the situations constructed nothing of importance is either resolved or revealed. Pleasant enough but I left pretty much unaffected.