TAKING STEPS, Ensemble Theatre, 23 November 2017-13 January 2018. Photography by Prudence Upton: above - Drew Livingston; below - Christa Nicola, below again Emma Harvie and Simon London
Alan Ayckbourn is one of the English language’s most prolific playwrights with “more than 80 plays” to his name. And that airy fact is from Sir Alan’s official website, so if he can’t be specific, you know for sure he’s written a cartload of plays.
His work, across all shades of comedy and farce from sunny to deepest bleak, ranges from dazzling and brilliant (such as The Norman Conquests, to be seen at the Ensemble late next year and also to be directed by Mark Kilmurry) to the neither dazzling nor brilliant. Taking Steps is from 1979 and it falls in the latter category of not-one-of-the-best.
Like so many of Ayckbourn’s plays, the action happens simultaneously in separate rooms and on one stage set. In this instance it takes place over one evening, into night and then next morning in the first floor master bedroom, an attic bedroom above that and the living room downstairs. The stairs, landings and corridors between these rooms – all rather dingy, it’s a dilapidated Victorian pile somewhere in the country – surround the three rooms and the actors “act” the ascents and descents of the stairs. More of that later...
Living in this old dump is Elizabeth (Christa Nicola) who gave up a dodgy dance career to marry Roland (Peter Kowitz), who’s made his fortune by cornering the market in buckets and who unaccountably decided to lease the old house. Roland is an amiable drunk and Elizabeth is going to leave him to return to The Dance. The play opens as she packs her suitcases in the bedroom while her brother Mark (Simon London) tries to figure out why his fiancee Kitty (Emma Harvie) left him at the altar and why he literally bores people to sleep.
Arriving from London, with a booking for the night at a local pub, Tristram (Drew Livingston) is the junior partner in a firm of solicitors that acts for Roland. Tristram is a shy chap who can barely utter a coherent sentence. He’s brought the paperwork for Roland’s intended purchase of the old house from Leslie (Andrew Tighe) a shonky builder who desperately needs Roland to buy the place to save his firm from going down the toilet.
The whole point of these already unlikely goings-on is that the audience knows and can see the occupants of the house, but the occupants are either hiding from or unaware of the presence of the others. This is a favourite Ayckbourn ploy and in his expert hands it can be ridiculously funny, rather than just ridiculous.
Taking Steps relies heavily on the technical skills of the actors and director and, in particular, the unlikely central figure of junior lawyer, Tristram. Around his bumbling, inarticulate yet vitally precise and carefully timed silliness the rest of the plot and cast must revolve. In Drew Livingston the production has the absurd yet rock-solid central performance and he is a daft delight.
Christa Nicola too is very funny as the dancer with the leastest. It’s no surprise when we learn she was never much more than a go-go dancer in the back line of a chorus: her frenetic practice routines and pretensions are pleasurably awful. Meanwhile, Simon London brings wide-eyed puzzlement to his role as her boring brother whose aim in life is to open a fishing tackle shop and live happily ever after with Kitty – who sensibly made a run for it, but has inexplicably returned (and is in the attic room and very depressed). Emma Harvie carries off this mix of hopelessness and indecision with aplomb and comical gloom. It’s a treat to discover these three talents on the Ensemble stage.
Peter Kowitz and Andrew Tighe are the well known vets of the company and do what they do with deceptive ease and skill. However, it was hard not to wonder – during the longueurs between laughs – whether this fine cast deserves to give their all in the service of this particular play. There are many more to choose from in the Ayckbourn archive (see above) and a lot are much better than this one.
The six actors aren’t helped by the constraints of the set on the already constrained Ensemble stage. Anna Gardiner’s design is as close to the favoured Ayckbourn round as possible but it’s impossibly cramped by some of the ugliest, tattiest and least plausible furnishings ever assembled. It’s intended to convey an upscale Victorian country house, albeit down at heel and whose better days are behind it, but this is not it. On the other hand, her array of 70s sleepwear is a triumph: candlewick robe, frogged woolly dressing gowns, stripey jim-jams...marvellous.
Also not it (see above) is the endlessly recurring motif of the “stairs”. Watching a character make the exaggerated, toon-like hoppity-hoppity-hop ascent or descent once is amusing; twice is kinda funny, after that it’s just plain stupid and dull. During one of the already-mentioned longueurs I found myself listing all the ways a person could comically “do the stairs” – and with a talented assistant director such as Francesca Savige on board, it’s a task that could have been handed to her to nut out. As it is, because the stairs are such a central feature of the action, the silliness drags down the entire enterprise and its timing.
Nevertheless, the fresh faces are a pleasure, Drew Livingston is splendid and a lot of people in the opening night audience got a lot of laughs. Now much looking forward to The Norman Conquests.