Life And Beth by Alan Ayckbourn, directed by Nikki Packham
It’s Christmas, and Beth is mourning the recent death of her health and safety officer husband, Gordon.
Beth’s sister-in-law Connie and son Martin have come to stay, determined to ensure that she should have a stress-free Christmas, but between Connie’s booziness and Martin’s unspeaking and emotionally volatile girlfriend Ella, their intentions prove to be short-lived.
Only David, the local vicar, provides Beth with any comfort, but when he says a prayer for her bereavement he unwittingly summons Gordon’s ghost to return to the family home.
Gordon has been busy implementing health and safety measures in the afterlife and is now determined to stick around to help Beth manage her affairs. It soon becomes apparent, however, that his return is not altogether welcome. This play is both comic and touching. And then there’s the matter of the cat…!
Some of the cast in rehearsal:
BETH TIMMS: Kay Samways
GORDON TIMMS: Stuart Scott
MARTIN TIMMS: Robert Hall
ELLA PACKER: Emma Wickenden
CONNIE BUNTING: Sharon Hawkes
DAVID GRINSEED: Spencer Hawkes
Here are the people who make it all happen:
DIRECTOR Nikki Packham
STAGE MANAGER: Sandie Campbell
ASM: Christine Lever
STAGE DIRECTOR: John Heather
SET DESIGNER: Alan Matthews
PROPS: Maggie Matthews
LIGHTING DESIGNER: Jon Lewis
SOUND DESIGNER: Ian James
Review by Adrian McLoughlin:
First of all, thank you all so much for the chance to see this play again. It was my first contact with it since we finished our last performance of it in Oxford several years ago. It was a pleasure to see it so well performed and presented.
About the play
Like many of Sir Alan Ayckbourns’ plays, “Life and Beth” is not an out and out comedy. It is certainly funny in places but has a lot of pathos in it too and some genuinely thought provoking ideas. This means that playing it can be tricky as one never quite knows when the laughs will come – or if they will come at all. Sir Alan himself never calls his plays comedies – he always just calls them plays – and talks eloquently to his casts about not expecting a particular response. Indeed, in playing them we always discovered that responses differed wildly from one night to the next and we got used to playing to quiet houses and riotous ones on succeeding nights. This particularly applies to “Life and Beth” and it’s a great credit to you all that you absolutely understood this and didn’t play for laughs or become dispirited if they didn’t come. Well done for succeeding where many have failed in the past!
I was very impressed with the verve and pace of this show. The cardinal sin is to let the pace or energy drop and this did not happen at all throughout the evening. From the start it went at a lick and never let up. Cues were picked up and everyone came on stage with plenty of attack.
I was also particularly impressed with the movement on stage. I can’t remember any time when I thought “why are they moving there?” or “why are they standing up/sitting down?”. This is a tricky task and it was handled extremely well.
I don’t tend to notice sets much but this one seemed to do the job perfectly well. In the original production Gordon came up – and went back down – through a trap door in the stage which was very effective. We couldn’t repeat that on tour as not every theatre would be able to convert their traps quickly enough so we re-blocked as we went with Gordon appearing and disappearing in a variety of ways. You would have the same problem of course. My one thought would be that, in this production, his entrances were handled fantastically but his final exit could perhaps have been more dramatic. Maybe another “explosion” and then he was gone? Not sure but it would have given a kick to his demise. As it was, we were straight into Wagstaffes reappearance and that was wonderfully well done so we soon forgot about poor Gordon!
It was extremely well cast. Everyone seemed right for their role and there were no weak links. This can be a problem in all productions, amateur or professional, as only one weak link can completely destabilize a production – happily that didn’t happen here.
Volume was generally very good. I heard what was said without feeling it was being punched out at me. Again this is tricky, especially on proscenium arch stages, but here everything felt natural and not forced.
There was a potential hazard at the very beginning when Kay as Beth suffered a bout of coughing. Fortunately, she worked through this with little fuss and it was commendable the way neither the play nor Kay faltered at a crucial time. It gave us confidence that any difficulties would be dealt with and we knew we were in safe hands.
One point I would mention – generally, though it applied more to some of you than to others – is that Ayckbourns’ plays really need to be very accurate to the script to work at their best. His writing is very precise and, unlike some playwrights, changing his text even only slightly or adding in additional short phrases can unbalance sentences and disrupt the rhythm of scenes. I was aware this was happening once or twice and I feel it’s something that could be looked at in any future Ayckbourn productions.
The other general point would be that the play doesn’t need help in the form of over-characterisation or too much gesturing or face pulling. There was only a little of that here but just occasionally I felt one or two of you could have taken the emphasis out of what you were saying and delivered lines more neutrally and with fewer “helpful” facial expressions. It’s difficult to do, especially without long and intensive daily rehearsals, but very rewarding when you can achieve it.
I won’t say much about individual performances – all were commendable and one or two outstanding. I particularly loved the mother and son scenes and felt they had a sadness that was implicit and not elaborated upon. Well done on those. It was extremely well cast and everyone contributed to the overall success of the production. Kay had the most to do – as Beth she effectively carries the play – but handled it brilliantly and the support she received from all of you was terrific.
There were at least two added scenes – the very funny scene change with the bed making (or unmaking) to enable Beth to effect a quick change and the actual appearance of the police as opposed to voices off. Both worked very well. They didn’t disrupt the rhythm of the play.
General points to think about
Performing plays with only two or three rehearsals a week in evenings and at weekends, presents problems that professional productions don’t – or shouldn’t – have. Here are some observations about this point for future thought!
Line learning: It’s imperative to be on top of lines. It can be very difficult when you are not involved in doing the play all day every day for three to four weeks before opening, but not impossible. I felt this was achieved here very admirably with the exception that there were some inaccuracies that disrupted the flow a little. Worth working on I think, but don’t expect perfection – just keep working towards it! But well done for keeping the play zooming along and giving the prompter nothing to do!
Over characterization: Again this wasn’t a serious problem and, again, it is something that is much easier with prolonged and intense rehearsal periods followed by runs of at least three or four week. In general the less we signal humour or sadness or anger, the funnier – or sadder or angrier – things come over to the audience. It takes courage though and commitment to try these things on stage and that only comes with practice and opportunity. It is thoroughly commendable how well you did on this without the intensity of a prolonged professional rehearsal period.
Pacing: This is even trickier and almost impossible without hours to experiment and, ideally, previews in front of paying audiences to try things out. In this production the pace was great and that was most important – to stop the play flagging. It never once did and that helped the audience feel comfortable and ready to laugh when things were funny and stay silent when things were sad etc. Sometimes though scenes benefit from changes of pace, slowing the pace down, speeding it up etc so that all characters on stage aren’t speaking at the same speed and in the same tone. It’s often referred to as picking up each others’ pace, which is something generally to be avoided.
Relationship with the audience: Once or twice I was aware that characters who were struggling with their emotions would look down or across stage rather than out at the audience. This is difficult because, in life, we don’t tend to stare helpfully into space as we emote – and in fact we often look down and away from anyone else present Nevertheless, it’s worth from time to time finding ways to look out front as naturally as you can – without overdoing it – as we, the audience like to see your eyes occasionally. To not do so begins to indicate after a while that you know we’re out there…………. A small point but it can make a big difference to how your character is perceived.
And that’s it! Thanks again for a thoroughly enjoyable evening and an incidental trip down memory lane. I’m sorry I can’t join you all tonight but I hope you have a good – and well deserved – drink or several. Have good Christmas’s and perhaps we’ll meet again somewhere along the way.
Review by Raymond Langford Jones for Sardines Magazine:
Each half of Nikki Packham’s highly enjoyable and polished production of Life And Beth for Wickham Theatre Centre, opens with the bright refrain of ‘Tis the season to be jolly’. This being Ayckbourn, we know, as with his other yuletide comedy Season’s Greetings, we can settle down and revel in the discomfiture of – other – suburban folk as they endure the dubious delights of the festive holiday. Well, we couldn’t possibly admit to recognising aspects of ourselves and our family and friends in them. Could we?
This was Alan Ayckbourn’s seventy-first play, and the first written two years after suffering his stroke in 2006. His illness may have drawn his attention to his own mortality, leading him to such questions, as ‘how will I be remembered – as I really was, or as people have been persuaded, I was?’
What makes him such an enduring and much-loved playwright is his gift for confronting issues that many of us shirk from – and finding the humour in them. Haven’t a lot of us lost people whom we have loved, but because they were very old or incurable, discovered their passing gave us a huge sense of relief – not just for them but also ourselves? Though having only recently lost her husband of over thirty years, Ayckbourn’s Beth is grateful for getting her our own life back – on her terms. Yet it would seem she still needs permission to let go of any residual guilt – closure, in fact.
Beth’s sister-in-law-from-hell, Connie, and her well-intentioned, if none-too-bright son, Martin arrive on Christmas Eve to stay over and help cheer her up on the big day: ‘leave everything to us; treat this (i.e. her own home) as a luxury hotel.’ The warning signs are already flashing and Beth looks bleakly out at us. Up to that point, she has seemed quite sanguine about her situation, more preoccupied over the cat that mysteriously vanished on the day of the funeral than grief-stricken. To start with, she carefully fields the remarks about what a wonderful marriage she had and what a great chap her husband Gordon was. Kay Samways’ beautifully nuanced Beth finds a wide range of polite smiles, until she can take no more, her voice takes on an increasingly acid edge and home truths come raining down. Connie and Martin’s silent, accident-prone Cordon Bleu girlfriend, Ella, would appear to be far more in need of help than she is.
Then, at the end of the first half Gordon mysteriously appears. Whether he is actually an apparition or simply in her head, is left to us to decide. Anyway, our fears are confirmed: he was (is?) a self-satisfied control freak. His manifestation is professionally realised, technically by clever lighting and related special effects, whilst the excellent Stuart Scott brings his body back to life, oozing smugness from every pore. The thought that Gordon has dispensation from the powers above to return to help Beth because she is incapable of managing without him, sends her into a spin that ultimately releases her inner strength to send him packing once and for all; and maybe embark on a fresh courtship with another member of the cast? The exchanges between Beth and Gordon are finely judged, providing hilarious moments.
But all Ayckbourn’s plays require a well-integrated team of actors, each member finely attuned to the other’s delivery of his verbal choreography. A misjudged split second can play havoc with a potential laugh, even more so a paraphrased line. Nikki Packham has brought together a well-matched group of actors whose performances rarely lose pace and attack. Everyone make the most of their role.
In possibly the most difficult part, Sharon Hawkes shows us tiresome Connie dissolving first into self-pity and eventually drunkenness in a nicely controlled performance with good comic timing. But, as I said earlier, this is an ensemble piece and the key characters are well complimented by the rest of the company.
Robert Hall as Martin, who has inherited his father’s exasperating, jokey way of announcing himself every time with ‘knock-knock’ in a variety of garish Christmas jumpers, also succeeds in putting your teeth on edge with his Tigger-ish bonhomie and gets most of his laughs. Spencer Hawkes’ David Grinseed, whose prayer to comfort Beth accidentally sets in motion the supernatural events, is every inch the confident, well-meaning vicar.
In what could be the thankless part of the taciturn Ella, Emma Wickenden makes up for the loss of lines by demonstrating a wide vocabulary of bored and surly expressions highlighted by a Goth make-up, and good use of body language. Richard Stewart and Sue Hicks are convincing police officers.
Alan Matthews and John Heather’s set serves the play well and one fully believes in the world beyond the doors and windows of the living room, aided by the well-chosen furniture, and set dressing – although I would have liked to have seen a few more Christmas cards!
Jon Lewis’ lighting is exemplary and Ian James’ sound design – incorporating ‘electronic programming’ helps the play along, although I, personally, found the underscoring distracting. The final ‘appearance’ of Wagstaff, the cat was brilliantly handled, with props magically flying all over the stage. Superb!
I have been known to criticise some productions at Theatre 62 – especially comedies – for being tentative and, seemingly, under-rehearsed. This one, however, shows how the right team can transmit a joy of their crafts to a high standard, even at the first performance. Here, total commitment and strong direction have paid off handsomely. As another guy might have said: ‘Fab-u-lous!’ I can’t wait to see it again.