The last Ayckbourn I saw was Absent Friends at the Harold Pinter theatre last spring. In that play, a long lost friend, still grieving for the death of his fiancee, shows up in a casual get-together. Over the course of an afternoon he becomes the catalyst of change and the cracks in the lives of three couples are blown wide open. In A Chorus of Disapproval, written by Alan Ayckbourn in 1984, a stranger, still grieving for the death of his wife, becomes part of an amateur operatic group that rehearses The Beggar’s opera. In the course of a few months, he becomes the catalyst of change and the lives of everyone in the group change for ever. When I saw Absent Friends, the increasing desperation as the play progresses made for a profound impression. A Chorus of Disapproval, in this production performed at – can you guess? – the Harold Pinter theatre, doesn’t have the same effect, but there is still plenty to recommend.
First of all, the production is very funny. Most of the credit for the laughs belongs to Rob Brydon playing Daffydd ap Llewellyn, the director of the production the group prepares for. Unsurprisingly, he has perfect comic timing, moreover he can use it in a way that allows the character to develop. It’s a perfectly judged performance, forceful enough to drive the play, but not so overwhelming that drowns the story and the other characters.
With Rob Brydon providing laughs and energy, Nigel Harman and Ashley Jensen provide a quieter space. Nigel Harman has an open face and a tricky role: his character is someone who, although intelligent, can’t say no and gets in situations he can’t control. Harman manages innocence without looking stupid, and gives his character a basic – but not dull – decency. I liked watching him in scenes where he was at the background (there are a few) and, even in these scenes, he can still command attention. Ashley Jensen is instantly believable in the role of an attractive woman who doesn’t know how attractive she is and discovers it at a price. It’s a quieter role than I have seen her do before, but her performance still has great emotional energy.
The rest of the cast bring to life a variety of characters with tremendous gusto (it is the kind of production the word “gusto” was invented for): Special mention to Daisy Beaumont and Paul Thornley playing a couple with adventurous tastes, and Susan Tracy playing a woman of late middle age, with the energy and the guts to get exactly what she wants.
The production feels lavish, with huge attention to detail, but not bloated (an occasional problem with other Trevor Nunn productions but not this one). It is nicely paced, it balances comedy with the right amount of pathos and it’s delightful in its setting (from half a dozen different sets, the one that looks more real is the rehearsal room). There is a beautiful scene where theatre lighting, moving around the auditorium and a difficult conversation are combined to great effect. The best elements of the production exist in that scene: perfect timing, great use of the theatre setting (with all its meta implications), the comedy and tragedy of misunderstandings, human weakness and lack of insight.
Ultimately, the show doesn’t try to be bold or innovative and doesn’t make for a challenging evening, but it’s hugely enjoyable without insulting the audience’s intelligence.
For a second opinion, read revstan’s review.