Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy springs from the buttoned up nature of the English middle classes and those Hyacinth Buckets who aspire to join their seemingly comfortable ranks.
This so annoys a fellow critic, one of strictly proletarian outlook, that he views Ayckbourn as if through the cross-hairs on a sniper rifle.
But Ayckbourn knows what he’s doing. He knows that in striving to stay buttoned up – to keep up appearances – the buttons will pop off occasionally, leaving the English middle classes open to ridicule. Cue laughter from middle class theatre-goers who understand their pain.
You would think my critic colleague would enjoy that but I reckon he has mentally wasted the entire cast before the buttons have even come under pressure.
Having said that, this play does offer particular provocation.
The action unfolds in a large London property belonging to Barbara who occupies the middle floor and is prim, proper and with a stressful office job.
Ayckbourn loves a set device and on this occasion the audience is afforded glimpses of the flats above and below.
In the nether region is Gilbert (Simon Gregor), a representative of the working class who has a northern accent, gets drunk and lusts after Barbara while keeping her pipes in order. He’s a sort of plumber whom we first encounter slithering on his belly.
Into this happy household (not) come lovers Nikki and Hamish who are to rent the upstairs flat while doing up a house ahead of their wedding.
Of particular interest in Laurence Boswell’s production is Natalie Imbruglia, famous as singer and screen actor but here appearing in her first stage play.
She tries hard as Nikki but seems mis-cast, resorting to much anxious gesticulating and ducking at the knee. It was uncomfortable to watch and when, at one point, her character says “No wonder people punch me” I sensed a cruel top note in the audience’s laughter.
It wasn’t really a funny line because Nikki is meant to have been a victim of a violent relationship.
This is the serious issue at the heart of the play, partly explaining why Hamish and Barbara (the stolid pair played by Edward Bennett and Claire Price) are drawn towards each other. But the play is not a serious exploration of domestic abuse since everything is a device for generating laughter.
It all adds up to a somewhat awkward night in the theatre even if you are not a dyed-in-the-wool class warrior.