Hurrah for the theatre programme archive boxes in my study which quickly yielded up the programme for Alan Ayckbourn’s Communicating Doors, which Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw on Saturday 3rd February 1996 at the Savoy Theatre, with Miss Angela Thorne playing the part of Ruella. That’s almost twenty years ago. Maybe it isn’t a coincidence that twenty years have passed since the play first opened in the West End, as there are two periods of twenty years each that separate all three of the time scales in the play. But it’s not an epic staged over forty years, it all happens at the same time. Didn’t you know about that? Am I going too fast for you?
The scene is a grand suite at London’s Regal Hotel, in the year 2020. Poopay, a rather sassy visiting dominatrix has come to give aged and infirm client Reece a good going-over. Reece has other ideas for her though, getting her to witness his signature on a document where he confesses to have arranged the murder of both of his ex-wives. In an attempt to escape for her life, Poopay dashes through a communicating door in the hotel room, only to find that, rather than taking her to another room, it takes her back to the same room, only twenty years earlier. Thus she discovers Reece’s second wife Ruella on the eve of her murder (by his somewhat violent and wicked business partner Julian, as it happens). Once Poopay has cottoned on to what’s happening, it’s up to her to convince Ruella of the danger she is in. Fortunately, Ruella is a spirited sort who enjoys a challenge. Ruella discovers she too can go back another twenty years via the communicating door, to discover Reece and Jessica (Wife #1) on their honeymoon night. Can the three women gang up together to use time to their advantage, defeat evil and create some happy-ever-afters where the course of all three of their lives turns out beautifully? You’ll have to see the play to find out.
Ayckbourn’s play is a modern classic of the “playing with time” genre. It was J B Priestley who really explored this style all hammer and tongs in the 1930s and 40s. Among his time-plays are Dangerous Corner, I Have Been Here Before and of course An Inspector Calls, rather moody, melodramatic plays, all revolving around time-tricks that are impossible in real life, with Priestley often using the device to expose hypocrisy and wickedness. Whilst the threat of violence and death is not inconsiderable in Communicating Doors, cocking a respectful hat to Psycho in one scene, Ayckbourn’s version of the time-play is nevertheless a much jollier affair, played strictly for laughs, and you don’t have to gen up on any Einsteinian time theories in advance. But I’m sure Priestley would have loved it all the same.
For this production, the wonderfully flexible Menier space has been set up as a traditional proscenium arch, creating a very wide stage perfect for the grandeur of a five star hotel suite. Whilst the main living room area of the suite has a timeless appearance, it is perhaps stretching credulity that the ensuite appearance and tiling would be the same in 1980 as it is in 2020. But then I can’t believe I’m actually looking for consistency in bathroom fittings over a period of forty years when the play itself is a complete flight of nonsense from start to finish.
It’s often been said that Ayckbourn writes great roles for women and here is a triumivirate (or should that be triumfeminate) to rank with the best. Imogen Stubbs is brilliant as Ruella, mixing hearty, brave, and enthusiastic characteristics with demure and unassuming behaviour. Mind you, she’s not above fluttering her womanly wiles at the hapless security man to get her way, manipulating in a thoroughly nice and decent manner, of course. Rachel Tucker, too, gives a delightful performance as Poopay, the dominatrix who’d probably be more comfortable tucked up with a late night cocoa, occasionally subtly revealing a hidden insight into what you imagine might be her rather sad and lonely world. As she faces her fears, running the gauntlet of Reece’s and Julian’s evil scheme, she and Ruella show great sisterly solidarity with each other, like a kind of time-warp self-help group. And then you have the wonderfully near-vacuous Jessica, played by Lucy Briggs-Owen, sweetly dippy on her wedding night, but blossoming in sophistication in later years – with a wonderfully underplayed moment where you realise what her ultimate fate will be. All three of them join forces in one amazing slapstick scene on the balcony – physical comedy at its funniest.
The “supporting” male cast are all very good too. There’s a splendidly low-life performance by David Bamber as the irredeemably horrible Julian, dripping with snide and malevolence, ready to snap your neck as soon as look at you. Robert Portal convinces us with both the nasty and kindly sides of Reece – being nasty certainly does nothing for Reece’s health, that’s for sure (nice work from the make-up department). And there’s some wonderful comic timing from Matthew Cottle as security man Harold, both bumptious in youth and beaten by age, and who also gets his own share of happy-ever-after.
We’re pretty sure all the loose ends tie up together, and, in the strange otherworld logic of the play, it kind of all makes sense. Incidentally, the original production had the three elements of the play set in 1974, 1994 and 2014. In our more modern society, Lindsay Posner has chosen to set the “future” scenes only a handful of years away, rather than a complete generation. A result of that is that whereas the original production had the “Ruella Years” for the contemporary setting, this production has “today” hovering somewhere between the two. So it looks like the director can play with time just as much as the author. Whatever, this is a timely opportunity to catch this great Ayckbourn play with a cast that do it terrific justice.
P.S. Great idea at the Menier now to have the bench seats in different colour fabric every two seats. That makes it so much easier to see where you should (and should not) be sitting, and may well discourage some people from spilling over into next door’s patch. Nice work!