You never know what is around the corner. Alan Ayckbourn’s classic tragi-comedy, Time Of My Life (TOML) serves up the usual menu of laughs but it also, rather cleverly, makes you think about life. Carpe diem is written in bold on the specials board in this table d’hôte production.
Flexi-time, an Italian trattoria, and a single, not particularly likeable family, are a recipe for a night of laughter, with a side-order of suffering, at London’s Brockley Jack Studio Theatre.
Rare Insight Productions comes to this successful little fringe venue in South London with a five-star revival of TOML and it’s a hoot.
OK, it is very middle-class, middle-England humour, but that’s no criticism in my books. A great play to revisit if you’re an Ayckbourn fan and a super first course if you’re keen to dive into a canon that is soon to add its 80th play.
The playwright has become a master of the impossible, creating deft comedies with multi-layered characters who are deeply flawed. He also tinkers around with time and space – just because he can.
The concept is never better than here where the dining area of an Italian bistro becomes the epicentre of the Stratton family’s universe.
We first meet them on a Saturday night in the 1980s. It’s Laura’s 54th birthday and her husband, Gerry has organised a get-together at their favourite eaterie.
Their two sons Glyn and Adam are there along with Glyn’s rather dull and mousy wife, Stephanie, and Adam’s showy and nervous new girlfriend, hairdresser Maureen.
Flitting about the tables is restaurant owner Calvinu and his team of four waiters.
It looks such a pleasant scene but the cracks are all too visible. We learn Glyn has been a naughty boy and been playing away from home, Gerry’s development business is struggling, and Adam still can’t hold down a permanent job or girl.
Laura is a nasty, waspish, bitch. She’s the mother-in-law from hell and a pretty obnoxious mother to boot. Snobbish, opinionated, domineering and snide. There’s isn’t anything remotely pleasant about her. On top of that she has an earth-shattering secret that has been kept hidden for far too long.
Gerry gives a speech, which goes down rather well, about how he’s never been happier than right at that moment. But that moment is over too soon and everyone’s lives are about to change forever.
Off on a side table we see a series of scenes play out between the cocky, brattish Glyn and his subjugated and rather boring wife, that take the story forward from that night. On another table time runs backwards to reveal how the drippy Adam met the dim but rather lovely Maureen (who really deserves better than becoming mixed up with the Strattons).
Together they complete the picture. I’d love to tell you that there is a happy outcome for all but fortunes are mixed for both the Strattons and the two women connected to the family. What is satisfying is that most characters get what they deserve.
TOML is a richly textured comedy that is a banquet of laughter from the entrée to the cognac and After Eight mints.
I was rather partial to Lauren Scott-Berry’s affectionate performance as the eager-to-please Maureen whose outfit prompts one of the waiters to shockingly assume she is a tart on the lookout for business.
Mark Steere’s Gerry doesn’t deserve his unexpected afters or the surprising pudding course while the rest of the dinner party – Hilary Derrett who is wonderfully foul as Laura, Pearce Sampson and Elliot Berry as indulged and spoilt sons Glyn and Adam, and Charlie McClimens as the wallflower, Steph – give splendid performances as the imperfect Strattons.
But the pièce de résistance of this life-changing dinner party is Joey Bartram’s epic turn as the waiters – yes all four – and the owner.
The team are a collection of vivid and uproarious stereotypes that have served us at one time or another – from the contemptuous, to the fawning and even that tow-curling medallion man singing excruciatingly awful love songs at the table. The side-splitting Bartram excels as them all and I’ve never laughed so much.
Director David Lucas serves up a mini masterpiece that is superbly entertaining. I had the Time of My Life and you will too.
Time Of My Life runs at the Jack Studio Theatre until April 30. Amelia Newbould plays Maureen in some performances.
Time Of My Life
A birthday party of ill manners, attended by Alan Ayckbourn’s superbly awful Stratton family, serves up a night of laughter in this tragi-comedy masterpiece.