Set design for an Alan Ayckbourn play must be a theatre’s ultimate challenge. Director Nadia Fall wanted spectacle for tonight’s Chichester Festival Theatre’s opener Way Upstream and she got it with the stage flooded for a 14,000 gallon river complete with full sized cabin cruiser.
And, yes, it got a round of applause.
Way Upstream is more than 30 years old but this political allegory, in an election year, couldn’t be more apposite.
Factory bosses Keith and Alistair take their wives, June and Emma, on a river cruise while a tide of unrest threatens their futures.
While they enjoy the perks of management their workforce is revolting in novelty toys.
They’re all at sea before they’ve cast off. None of them know what they’re doing but arrogant, boorish Keith assumes command and appoints himself skipper.
June does nothing but complain, non-swimmer Emma refuses to take off her life-jacket and Ali is a wet, through and through. Indecisive, ineffective, unable to stand up to his business partner, he’s lacking in self-esteem, confidence and resolve.
Their plans for a jolly holiday come to an abrupt end amid, incessant bickering, Keith’s determination to ride roughshod over his workers and crew-mates and mutiny.
During one particularly sticky moment, when the seriously spineless Ali is left in control, the boat runs aground only to be rescued by a Bear Grylls type, complete with a Bowie knife, who strips off his shirt (in a moment, Jason Durr, much appreciated by your first night audience), dives into the murky water and physically pushes the boat free. What a man!
Sarah Parish’s eternally disappointed June suddenly turns into a bitch on heat at the sight of this rugged hero. She’s slavering over him and can barely control herself.
But, like all of Ayckbourn’s plays, not everything is what they seem. Jason Durr’s Vince is possibly one of the most sadistic and unsavoury characters ever created by the playwright.
His easy-going charm soon gives way to something much darker and intimidating that threatens the future of everyone on board the goodship Hadforth Bounty.
You have to be a hardy to work on stage at Chichester, which has a love of water and a perverse pleasure in soaking its actors.
In this production not only does the action take place on board a boat, with the inevitable tumbles into the river, but the crew are rained on (twice). By the end of the run they’ll be lucky to escape without serious colds.
Ayckbourn’s men are an unlikable bunch. Peter Forbes rather nasty factory owner, Keith, is a bully, Vince is plain evil and Ali (Midsomer Murders’ Jason Hughes) is weak and pathetic. The audience gasps throughout at his treatment.
The women don’t come out much better, particularly Parish who is a superb comic actor and adept at playing these sour-faced, middle-class harridans. June is a delight.
Jill Halfpenny’s Emma is almost as dull as her lack-lustre husband but it’s clear she feels let down in her marriage. She wanted a strong leading man, and ended up with a timid extra.
Ben Stones’ set design is nothing short of astonishing. There’s a full sized pine forest to the back of the stage with downstage taken up by the “river” whose banks retract.
Sam Garner-Gibbons, the theatre’s technical coordinator talks about the complexities of flooding the stage in an interview for the programme and it’s fascinating reading.
The director comes up with a clever way to fast-forward the characters’ actions but it’s overused. The first few times it appears innovative but it eventually becomes predictable.
Still, this is classic Ayckbourn. Way Upstream is funny, entertaining, rather bleak and thought-provoking. It’s also put me off any idea of renting a boat for a jaunt along a river.
Way Upstream runs at Chichester Festival Theatre until May 16.