This review was originally written for The Public Reviews
With their student production of Ayckbourn’s Living Together, directors Laura Cull and Griffith Reeves have not sought to stage a comedy, but rather a ‘hyper-realistic tragedy with jokes’. In telling the story of one family’s argument-filled weekend in the country, they have relied on the inherent wit of the script to supply the laughs, focussing on drawing out the other prevalent leitmotif of Ayckbourn’s writing – the excruciatingly relatable pathos. It’s a bold and moderately successful move.
Freddie Bowerman is Norman, a gangly, half-heartedly subversive librarian with ‘an aimless sort of beard’, whose abortive affair with his wife’s sister, the downtrodden Annie (Lizzy Mansfield), wreaks havoc with what is meant to be a relaxing weekend. The initial ignorance of Annie’s fiancé, the nice-but-dim Tom (James Watson), the awkwardness of her brother Reg (James Aldred), the prim disapproval of Reg’s wife, Sarah (Sarah Matthews), and the fiery frustration of Norman’s wife, Ruth (Mary Higgins), all engender both laughs and sighs as the six of them bounce angrily off each other in the confined space of one country house.
The production is graced with a set of laudably proficient performances that brim with potential. All manage to find such naturalism that the audience cannot fail to identify the Normans, the Annies, and the Toms in their own lives. Watson perfectly captures the recognisable bumble of a man cuckolded, Aldred finds that middle-aged world-weariness well, and Matthews’ controlling, pernickety Sarah is irritating – but in a good way. It is Bowerman’s Norman, however, that impresses most. His scraggly, bobble-hatted Norman is a fidgeting, self-serving triumph – the audience can almost smell that skin-deep anti-establishment whiff of organic garlic.
The set, designed by Abby Clarke, is well conceived. with the living room – a ‘museum of brown’ – at its heart, a kitchen visible through a doorway upstage, and a flight of stairs leading up to a balcony and bedrooms above all. Its brilliance lies in the way we catch glimpses of characters moving around in other rooms, chatting or, more commonly, arguing. It is a device that heightens the realism Cull and Griffith have attempted to capture.
In attempting to find this ‘hyper-realism’ through which the pathos can hit home, the directors have lost something essential to the play’s power. By adopting a strategy of letting the jokes tell themselves and chasing the play’s sad reflection of a dysfunctional family, they do not leave the audience bereft of laughter by any stretch, but nor do they leave them gasping for breath. The production is laden with humour, particularly in Norman’s incurable fickleness and Reg’s dry cynicism, but it is the tears through the laughter that makes Ayckbourn’s work so arresting, not laughter through the tears.
This student production of his Living Together – which is one part of his trilogy The Norman Conquests – is well-acted and well-directed. It finds the necessary realism to reveal Ayckbourn’s quintessential everyday pathos, but it lacks the hysterical laughs that paradoxically make that pathos so powerful.