Superb acting in Ayckbourn drama in evening of high quality theatre

Hero's Welcome by Alan Ayckbourn SUS-160222-091520001
Hero's Welcome by Alan Ayckbourn SUS-160222-091520001

After a few dark post-panto weeks, the Devonshire Park Theatre returns with a splendid double bill, Confusions and Hero’s Welcome, which form a showcase for forty years of Alan Ayckbourn.

The plays are respectively his first and his most recent productions. In recent months at the Devonshire Park, more than one attempted Ayckbourn revival has failed to ignite. So how is this latest different?

Well firstly, the standard of acting is superb. Five actors in search of 20 characters: across the five Confusions vignettes, they do indeed bring to life 20 very different characters with accomplished versatility.

The five little plays could stand alone, although they are subtly linked. In the first, Elizabeth Boag’s harassed housewife, worthy of an OCD diagnosis but back then merely harassed, talks down to her hapless neighbours as formidably as to her own children. Her absentee husband might well be the very same Richard Stacey who, a businessman on the road and a real Seventies chancer, makes horribly oily advances to two lady guests in his hotel. Your flesh will crawl, and you’ll be grateful that we know look at sexism through different eyes.

Those two openers, in fact, are the most deeply rooted in the attitudes and prejudices of the last century. The third play has marital infidelity too, but as a universal theme, sublimely played out here at the separate tables of a restaurant, with Stephen Billington’s wonderfully camp waiter upstaging them knowingly.

The second half transports us to the classic farce of a village fete, where Stephen Billington is a priceless scoutmaster down to the knobbly knees and Richard Stacey’s vicar dodders for England. Everything, of course, goes wrong, and local scandal is accidentally disclosed over the tannoy.

The final play, though, is also the most telling. It might have started as a bit of workshopping – four park benches, five actors, and see what happens when they jostle for space, but it prompts a series of monologues resonant of Bennett’s Talking Heads. They are witty, poignant, insightful, and they seal an evening of truly high-quality theatre.

Brilliant work, by the way, from the stage managers, whose choreographed routines of striking and resetting each new scene are immaculate, and an entertainment in themselves. And speaking of heroes...Hero’s Welcome took over the stage on Tuesday and Wednesday: blink if you missed it, and rue the rather unhelpful scheduling. It is a really involving, thought-provoking drama, a page-turner with lots of story, and indeed one of those intriguing plots where the audience knows slightly more at any point than some of the characters.

Returning war hero Murray (Richard Stacey) is back to his home town with youthful new bride Baba – a highly impressive debut from Evelyn Hoskins – but uncomfortable home truths are revealed from the past. By Kevin Anderson