House & Garden: World Premiere Reviews

This page contains a selection of reviews from the world premiere production of Alan Ayckbourn's House & Garden at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, during 1999. All reviews are the copyright of the respective publication and / or author. Reviews for the National Theatre's production can be found here.

Master Of Marital Pain (by Michael Billington)
"Sitting comfortably? I'll begin. Alan Ayckbourn's new play,
House, set on a Saturday in August, is being staged in Scarborough's proscenium arch McCarthy Theatre. Meanwhile, Ayckbourn's Garden, which takes place during the same period, is presented simultaneously in the adjacent theatre. The same characters appear in both, which suggests a third, unseen drama taking place offstage with actors madly commuting between the two venues.
Even by Ayckbourn's standards, this is a mind-boggling technical feat. In
The Norman Conquests he offered us three perspectives on the same country weekend: But here, because the action is simultaneous, the plays have to be perfectly synchronised. What happens if audience reaction in one house throws the timing? Ayckbourn has even built in adjustable comic business to ensure that the two plays reach their destination on time and enable the actors to take overlapping curtain calls.
The danger is one becomes obsessed by the stopwatch mechanics and ignores the content. But, seen together, the plays offer an extraordinary comic-melancholic vision of married life in which women end up as resilient victims.
House, in particular, is one of Ayckbourn's best plays - a study in domestic disintegration in which much of the key action happens offstage.
House is set in the sitting room of the wealthy Teddy Platt, a bovine adulterer who is being sounded out by a visiting political fixer about standing as the local MP. The problem is that Teddy's wife refuses to acknowledge his existence, his latest affair with his best friend's spouse is publicly exposed and he becomes embroiled with a dipso French actress who is opening the fête at the bottom of his garden. The play fulfils the definition of farce as the worst day of your life. But it is also a devastating study of differing patterns of destruction.
Teddy, played by Robert Blythe with just the right blundering crassness, is a man who has destroyed his marriage to his well-bred wife (Eileen Battye) through emotional insensitivity. But Ayckbourn introduces a more suave destroyer in the shape of the Tory powerbroker, Gavin Ryng-Mayne. In a scene of brutal brilliance, the latter swats off Teddy's bright-eyed, sexually eager schoolgirl daughter as casually as if crushing a fly. As played by Terence Booth and Charlie Hayes, the scene demonstrates the devastation caused by cold-heartedness.
If I prefer
House to Garden, it is because so much is left to our imagination: we can envisage both the emotional havoc taking place in the lower meadow and the sodden awfulness of a summer fête. In Garden, we see all this for ourselves. But Ayckbourn also subtly introduces another form of marital destruction: as Barry McCarthy's saintly doctor learns that his wife, beautifully played by Janie Dee, has been having an affair with his best friend, we see the ruinous effect of selfless tolerance.
You have to see both plays to understand Ayckbourn's overall design, and to realise that he is consciously echoing previous plays, such as
Woman in Mind and Just Between Ourselves, while introducing new ideas, such as the disruptive effect of a non-English speaking movie actress, played with glamorous skittishness by Sabine Azema. And only when you see both plays do you appreciate the technical ingenuity by which actors serve two masters simultaneously.
Ayckbourn shows not just how social rituals descend into chaos but how women require steel and nerve to transcend the brutalising conventions of middle-class marriage. He is an instinctive feminist and these extraordinary plays, which do something unparalleled in the history of drama, eloquently prove the point."
(The Guardian, 21 June 1999)

House & Garden (by Robert Hewison)
"Tom Stoppard wrote a play about what happened to the characters when they were not on stage, and called it
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Alan Ayckbourn has gone one better, and written two plays that happen at the same time, with the same characters, played by the same cast, but - having two auditoriums at his disposal - they are in different theatres. When House kicks off in the McCarthy, Garden starts in the Round downstairs. With everybody appearing in both, it is like a comedic Rubic [sic] cube.
There is a common location, the Platt estate, where the local minor magnate and major drinker and womaniser Teddy Platt (Robert Blythe) is hosting the village fête. Up at the
House he is waiting to welcome the French starlet who will open the fete (Sabine Azema) and, more importantly, for Gavin Ryng-Mayne (Terence Booth), who has been sent from Central Office to see if he is ready to resume the family tradition of being the local MP. This character's silly name conceals a very nasty person, and Teddy is unable to hide the fact that his abused wife (Eileen Battye) pretends he does not exist. In the Garden, Teddy's latest, next-door neighbour Joanna (Janie Dee), is reacting badly to being dumped, and the consequences of the affair are being felt by her husband Giles (Barry McCarthy) and son Jake (Danny Nutt), who is in love with Teddy's daughter (Charlie Hayes). Further down the social scale, affairs are coming to a head between the irascible gardener, the housekeeper and her promiscuous daughter. The marriage of the Loves (Simon Green and Alison Senior), who are helping to set up the fête, heads for disaster.
Such is the comic intricacy of these interlocking relationships, such are the sublime moments of farce, that it is easy to miss the utter bleakness of Ayckbourn's themes: alcoholism, incest, marital breakdown, mental breakdown, above all our complete failure to communicate with one another. The triumph of his ingenuity lies in the fact that you have to see both plays. On a single viewing, he seems to be deploying stock characters from his repertoire. The coping neurotic, the flaying buffoon, the stammering fool, the earnest ingénue, the naff couple in tracksuits, the yokel underclass. A second time round, in whichever order you take them, characters will deepen, while those you know become the background. It is a superb Ayckbourn joke that a comedy about non-communication should depend on the sharpest communication skills."
(Sunday Times, 27 June 1999)

Ayckbourn Turns Comedy Inside Out (by Robert Gore-Langton)
"Alan Ayckbourn looms up from nowhere at the interval of his latest play in Scarborough. "Oh hello, yep, I'm thinking of a new one." he says to the inevitable question. When's it going to be ready? "When I've made the time." he says cheerily, as ever, twitching slightly in a riot of pastel and beige.
The way he talks about plays, you would think the bloke was putting up shelves. He's never worried that he'll get writer's block or that he'll miss the deadline. There have been times when the poster has gone up to advertise a play he hasn't finished. His works are famously logged on his computer not by title but by number, AA55 and so forth.
The converted Thirties Odeon cinema - now the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough - is his personal fiefdom. He writes and directs and bails it out when the going gets tough. The good news is that, over 20 years, it has given Ayckbourn a reason to write. All his plays start there, most end up in the West End.
Things We Do For Love has just finished a long stint in the West End. Comic Potential a fine new play with Janie Dee as an android arrives in London later in the year.
House & Garden have become the most talked-about events in regional theatre this summer. Two plays performed simultaneously in adjacent theatres by one cast. It's fiendish clever, tricksy, fun to watch (you sit there imagining the actors zipping backstage from show to show) and, amazingly, it works. House is a fine piece, light but full of the clatter of collapsing marriages. Garden gives you a different view of the relationships as the summer fete outside is being prepared.
House features Teddy Platt (Robert Blythe) as the alcoholic philanderer and aspiring MP whose betrayed wife (Eileen Battye, superb) pretends she is both inaudible and invisible because of Teddy's affair with the local doctor's wife. Meanwhile Teddy's daughter the precocious Sally, a schoolgirl - rejects the nice young man hopelessly in love with her and gets her fingers burnt by flirting with a creepy Mandelson apparatchik who has come to lunch to encourage Teddy's candidacy.
Janie Dee's appearance (as Teddy's bit on the side) provides the
Garden play with the evening's farce. as she goes berserk in the bushes, driven to mute and raving despair by her rejection. That bit doesn't quite work and, anyway, I'm not sure Blythe's portrayal of Teddy entirely convinced me of his magnetic effect on women.
Still, she's gorgeous and there's also a French film star - the no less delightful Sabine Azéma - who contributes a magnificently boozy routine at the lunch party. Watch out too for Barry McCarthy as the dithering, good-natured cuckold, Giles.
Alas, there's defeatist talk of the plays not transferring to London. This would be a damn shame. The Royal Court, disgracefully, has never staged an Ayckbourn play - why not open its new twin auditorium with
House & Garden later this year? The National Theatre could even ask him to write an extra play maybe called Conservatory and perform them simultaneously on its three auditoria. Something must be done. It would be a scandal to let this pioneering double go no further than the Yorkshire coast."
(Mail On Sunday, 16 July 1999)

Ayckbourn Crafts A Stitch In Time (by Ian Shuttleworth)
"Just over 25 years ago, Alan Ayckbourn's trilogy
The Norman Conquests confirmed him not simply as a skilled and sensitive writer of comedies but as a puckish manipulator of dramatic structure. Each of those plays recounted the events of a single family weekend, but in a different location - dining room, living room, garden. House & Garden, the diptych he has written to celebrate his 60th birthday, does likewise, but with two added twists.
Where events in the
Normans only overlapped occasionally, for a few minutes at a time, those in House (staged in the Stephen Joseph's end-on McCarthy space) and Garden (downstairs in its trademark Round auditorium) are almost entirely simultaneous. As a character exits upstairs to take the dog for a walk, he appears on the other stage only a few seconds later in the corresponding scene. This simultaneity occurs not just in dramatic time, but in real time: the plays are staged together, so that - for instance - immediately upon his exit in the McCarthy, that dog-walking actor has to hot-foot it down to the Round theatre to make his entrance there, shouting, "Come on, boy!"
It is a beautifully devilish idea, but one that depends for complete appreciation on extrinsic audience knowledge and on a commitment to see both plays (although not necessarily in the order which the title suggests, and perhaps even better vice versa). Moreover, since the McCarthy can currently accommodate fewer than two-thirds as many theatregoers as the Round, a lot of people are going to miss out on the full joke. The need to achieve complete synchronisation in staging also means that scenes in
House are bracketed by two minutes or more of jaunty music as the stage sits in darkness: it is a small wonder that this cripples the comic pace as little as it does.
And what of the plays themselves? They are great fun and deceptively weighty in emotional content, although
House carries rather more substance in this department - to the extent that one character, the disillusioned wife Trish (Eileen Battye) is a smidgen overwritten in later scenes. Garden deals more with characters of broad types - the Mummerset servants, the track-suited husband, casually heartless in his obsession with organising things.
The action unfolds through a single day of stage-time, interweaving plot lines including four marriages on the rocks, the organisational hell of a storm-battered garden fête, an unpredictable, alcoholic French film actress with no English, backroom political shenanigans and even Humbertish cradle-snatching and nymphet coquetry - all handled with delicacy and intelligence. Ayckbourn enjoys scattering discreet nods to earlier plays such as
Just Between Ourselves and Intimate Exchanges; this even permeates the casting, with Sabine Azéma having starred in the film adaptations of the latter plays, Smoking and No Smoking, before appearing here as boozy loose cannon Lucille Cadeau (whose Gallic outpourings Ayckbourn dares to leave almost entirely untranslated). Robert Blythe rumbles nicely as Trish's serial adulterer husband Teddy, Janie Dee is a delight in Garden as his jilted mistress Joanna, self-dramatising to the point (literally) of insanity. As Teddy and Trish's daughter Sally, young Charlie Hayes does magnificent justice to one of the finest non-sociopath teenage parts to have been written in recent years."
(Financial Times, 1 June 1999)

Ayckbourn Has Fun With His Theatrical Train Set (by Charles Spencer)
"Alan Ayckbourn is up to his ingenious tricks again. The man who has given us plays with multiple alternative endings, life-size boats that really float on stage, and a married couple attending two different dinner parties at the same time has come up with another example of stage wizardry.
In many ways,
House & Garden looks like a return to perhaps his greatest work, The Norman Conquests, that trilogy of plays featuring the same actors which took place over one weekend in three different areas of the same house. Those plays were performed in repertory, however. The amazing dexterity of House & Garden is that the two plays take place in different auditoria simultaneously - both in the same building, at the Stephen Joseph Theatre - and the same large cast appears in both of them.
A character will walk off one stage and on to another, sometimes with as little as 14 seconds to make the journey between the two venues. Both shows start at the same time, break for the interval at the same time, and end within seconds of each other. Rarely has the writer seemed to be having so much fun with his theatrical train set.
The plays are comprehensible on their own, but you will obtain a far more detailed picture of the characters and their predicaments if you see both.
As always in Ayckbourn, hilarity is combined with hurt. These are plays about love and marriage, and there are times when Ayckbourn makes Strindberg look like a jaunty optimist. No fewer than three marriages collapse in the course of
House & Garden.
House, which is staged in the McCarthy auditorium with its conventional proscenium stage, Teddy Platt, a boozy philanderer, is hoping to become an MP. His wife, in a brilliantly developed running gag, invariably pretends that she can neither see nor hear him, because Teddy has been having an affair with Joanna, the wife of their close friend Giles Mace, the local doctor.
We get to meet Joanna mostly in
Garden, staged in the round, and after Teddy breaks off their affair, she goes off her rocker, leading to an achingly funny scene in which she attempts various forms of suicide - including throwing herself in front of a lawn mower.
There is richness of characterisation and incident in these plays. Ayckbourn produces a lovely study of the agonies of adolescent love in the characters of Sally, daughter of Teddy, and Jake, son of Joanna, while the relationship between Jake, suffering the hell of unrequited passion, and his father Giles, bleakly waking up to the fact that the wife he loves so much has cuckolded him, is drawn with real tenderness.
It doesn't all work. Several of the characters don't fully earn their place in the narrative. There are also passages when Ayckbourn seems to be offering a mere reiteration of themes and relationships he has explored in more detail and depth elsewhere.
There is, however, a real satisfaction in seeing the two plays interconnect, scenes when Ayckbourn is at the very top of his form. Among the performers, I especially liked Barry McCarthy as poor betrayed Giles, a genuinely good, permanently apologetic man suffering horribly.
Robert Blythe is marvellously funny as Teddy Platt, a bounder you somehow can't help liking, while Terence Booth is charismatically sinister as a smooth political fixer, one of those Ayckbourn characters who gives off a whiff of motiveless malignity. Janie Dee, despite having an under-written role, is both funny and touching as the desperate adulteress. There is strong work too from Eileen Battye as Teddy's understandably angry wife, and from Simon Green and Alison Senior as a couple locked into a truly hideous marriage.
Like all Ayckbourn's best work,
House & Garden combines ingenuity, deep feeling and delighted laughter, though here you occasionally feel that deeper feelings are being sacrificed to the gags and complex structure. There are undoubtedly dips during the combined five-hour running time of the two plays, but at its considerable best, House & Garden hit the Ayckbournian heights."
(Daily Telegraph, 22 June 1999)

Single Cast In Double Delight (by Nigel Cliff)
"There must be a false bottom to Alan Ayckbourn's bag of theatrical tricks. With more than 50 plays to his name, he has conjured up one of his most outrageous bits of stagecraft to date: two interconnected plays, performed simultaneously in the Stephen Joseph Theatre, by the same cast.
Confused? While
House plays in one auditorium, Garden is on in the other, and when anyone leaves one stage, you can take it on trust that they're hot-footing it to the next. Or rather, you have no choice but to take it on trust until you see the second instalment, which leaves you feeling deliciously short-changed.
If you happen to be in Scarborough, see both. I suggest you see
Garden first. Though for the most part the two are successfully interwoven, more of the plot is seeded in Garden, whereas if you start indoors the abrupt appearance of several seemingly extraneous characters will leave you in the dark.
A bit more tinkering with the twin plots would put that right. But both plays splendidly display Ayckbourn's unerring knack for naturalistic comic dialogue and his knowing tilt at the Schadenfreude of farce.
House is set in country grandee Teddy Platt's sitting-room, Garden on his lawn. A village fête is under way outside; in the house, Teddy is preparing to receive an emissary from the PM, who goes by the unsanitary name of Gavin Ryng-Mayne. But both plays are really about troubled relationships. Take a deep breath: Teddy is married to long-suffering Trish, but sleeping with drama queen Joanna, wife of Morris-dancing doctor Giles. Their sappy son is head-over-heels for the Platts' little madam of a daughter, who has the hots for the sleazy Gavin.
Meanwhile, a French film starlet, Lucille Cadeau, turns up to open the fête and gets stuck in with Teddy.
That's without the two subplots, which deal with the stiflingly conventional marriage of the inappropriately named Loves, and an equally unconventional threesome of a gardener, his housekeeper lover, and the housekeeper's daughter and gardener's ex-lover. Mother and daughter are the Truces; Ayckbourn names his characters like a sarcastic Dickens.
As usual, he is acutely sensitive to domestic insensitivity and has it in for marriage: by the end, two of the women have run off, and the third, Joanna, goes mad. Bonking drives you bonkers, in other words. Which, apart from a bit of intrusive moralising and one redundant character (Lucille's driver), is the only unconvincing note in the pair of scripts.
As Joanna, though, the effervescent Janie Dee wins through. Robert Blythe is on top form as the jovially amoral Teddy, and Barry McCarthy is touching as Joanna's husband. Eileen Battye movingly portrays Trish's weary dignity; Terence Booth is enjoyably sleazy as Gavin, Sabine Azéma hilariously hammy in a gift of a part as Lucille. Simon Green and Alison Senior get much comic mileage out of the Loves. Too contrived to be up with Ayckbourn's best, but a delightful double-act nonetheless."
(The Times, 22 June 1999)

Acting At The Double (by Paul Taylor)
"Every exit is an entrance somewhere else - this truism takes on a loopy new lease of life in
House & Garden, a two-play entertainment by Alan Ayckbourn, premiered in the author's engaging, high-precision production at Scarborough.
Noises Off, Michael Frayn famously revolves the action so you are alternately privy to the backstage and the onstage antics at the performance of some grisly farce. House & Garden contrive an ingenious variation on this conceit. Here, Ayckbourn has the same cast racing between two linked plays, performed simultaneously in the adjacent auditoria of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, offering divergent perspectives on events at the big house on the day of a garden fete worse than death. Not so much Noises Off as Noises In Between.
House is much the funnier piece, its focus trained on the excellent Robert Blythe's Teddy, a portly, wrecked, philandering cherub, whose failure to follow his forebears into politics may be providentially reversed by a guest - an old school friend and Downing Street habitual - coming, supposedly with a plea from the PM, to the pre-fete lunch.
Teddy's ambitions are not best served by an unhappy wife (Eileen Battye) who brightly pretends he is not there, nor by the cast-off mistress (Janie Dee) whose collapsing marriage to a morris-dancing enthusiast comes under scrutiny in
Garden. The best comic stroke is the characterisation of Teddy's friend, a sleek operator, played with a wonderfully undermining smoothness by Terence Booth, who goes through life falsely raising people's hopes for the casual delight of watching them dashed.
Your mind runs on such questions as how on earth they manage to synchronise the two performances (watch out for bits of business that can, by signal, be shortened or prolonged to keep the shows in tandem).
You also try to imagine what it must be like playing at the same event to two potentially different audiences. Drama normally relies on the interplay between seen and suggestively unseen action (inconceivable that Pinter would show you what was really happening at the other end of the eponymous
Dumb Waiter) and House & Garden have the weaknesses, as well as the strengths, of violating this principle. They demonstrate, for example, that "offstage" is a less funny proposition in an in the-round space than in an end-staged one. Mostly, though, you sit back and appreciate the nippiness of the attractive cast and the minor miracle of the show's co-ordination."
(The Independent, 23 June 1999)

House And Garden (by Tim Auld)
"Since moving his company to the purpose built Stephen Joseph Theatre in 1996, Alan Ayckbourn has written more than two shows a year, ranging from full-length plays and a musical, to a variety show, a translation of
The Forest by Ostrovsky for the Royal National Theatre, and a one-act script for the BT National Connections young person's theatre project. But something has been missing: a large-scale, technically ingenious and risky exploration of the theatre spaces at his disposal; something to stand or fall alongside his two part The Revengers' Comedies, his multi-version Intimate Exchanges, or his 1970s Norman Conquests. His latest project marks a return to such territory.
House & Garden are, in fact, two plays which show the events of a Saturday in a country village from two different viewpoints: the library-drawing room of Teddy and Trish Platt's Georgian house, and a sunken garden in its grounds. Each play, says the programme, can stand on its own, but for "maximum effect", both should be seen, in whichever order the spectator chooses. House is intended to form the subtext to Garden and vice versa; each exit in one play corresponds to an entrance in the other - as in the three-part Norman Conquests. But while each of the Conquests was performed separately in the original theatre-in-the-round in Scarborough's public library, House & Garden are performed concurrently by the same cast, on, respectively, the Stephen Joseph Theatre's end stage and its theatre-in-the-round, with the actors running backstage between the two spaces to make their cues - an unprecedented feat of technical writing.
The plays, set on the day of the village fête, chart the final stages in the marital breakdowns of the Platts and of their neighbours, Giles and Joanna Mace. Teddy, rotund, red-faced and overheated, is having an affair with the histrionic Joanna. Everyone but Giles knows what is going on, including Trish, her earnest daughter, Sally, and the Maces' gawky son, Jake. To complicate matters, Teddy, who comes from a long line of politicians, though himself not an MP, is awaiting the arrival of Government spin-doctor Gavin Ryng-Mayne, from whom he expects a call to political arms to save the Party from General Election disaster. Aware that he must clean up his act if election glory is to be his, Teddy breaks off his affair with Joanna, sparking the action of both plays. Broadly,
House explores the impact of Ryng-Mayne on the Platt family, while Garden follows the story of Giles and Joanna Mace. Into both stories Ayckbourn weaves subplots involving the couples' children (Danny Nutt and Charlie Hayes), a tin-pot dictator and his downtrodden wife (borrowed almost directly from Absurd Person Singular), a dysfunctional family of rustics and an alcoholic French film actress.
Ayckbourn's theme is love, how easy it is to fail one's partner, and how difficult to express love directly, without games of evasion and manipulation. From the dramatist who has so precisely anatomised the mutual destructiveness of the marriage contract and the security myth of middle-class affluence, his conclusions about the constructive potential of the family unit are surprisingly upbeat, though we are left with counter-images of two married women setting out on their own, and another suffering from delusional paranoia.
Ayckbourn elucidates the depths of emotional misunderstanding most elegantly when spare dialogue is combined with intricate comic construction; he can make an audience jump simply by having a wife call her husband by his Christian name. But this is also where Ayckbourn's project seems to falter. While
House carries the spectator effortlessly to the interval and conclusion, allowing jokes to grow towards punchlines, and pausing for dialogue and silence to take hold, Garden is an uneven mix of brief, fragmented exchanges, melodramatic farce and shapeless slapstick. House is all text, Garden all subtext; while Garden does whet the appetite for what might be happening in House, it is really a collage of scenes which Ayckbourn would have left to the imagination had he chosen to make House a single play. Ultimately, it is the detached spin doctor Ryng-Mayne (Terence Booth), ever present in House but only a walk-on in Garden, who gives the other characters around him the opportunity to unravel their emotional confusions, and for Ayckbourn to write his finest dialogue.
The plays would be virtually impossible to stage in a conventional theatre, and emphasise the degree to which Ayckbourn continues to be inspired by the specific technical description of his Scarborough theatre, and, of course, by the skilled commitment of his actors. When he wrote
The Norman Conquests for the makeshift Library Theatre back in 1973, he argued that the stage's limitations would allow the plays to be performed anywhere; paradoxically, the sophistication of the new theatre makes House & Garden a dramatic diptych unequivocally dedicated to the town of Scarborough."
(Country Life, 9 July 1999)

All reviews are copyright of the respective publication.