Taking Steps: London 2010 Revival Reviews

Typically this website includes a page of review extracts from the West End premiere of Alan Ayckbourn's plays. However, as the Background notes explain, the original West End production is problematic in that it is not considered by the playwright to be a fair representation of the play. This was due to a number of issues, not least the fact the production, directed by Michael Rudman, presented a play specifically written for in-the-round performance in the proscenium arch. To give a better impression of critics' reaction to the play as intended and written (i.e. in-the-round), the reviews for this page instead represent a selection taken from Alan Ayckbourn's own 2010 revival of the play at the Orange Tree, Richmond.

Taking Steps (by Michael Billington)
This is one of the Ayckbourn plays that got away. Unseen in London since 1980, it not only proves, in the author's own revival, to be a riotously funny farce - it also reminds us that farce at its very best is inescapably about something: in this case, women's hunger for freedom and the difficulties of rational communication.
As so often in Ayckbourn, an ingenious physical device propels the action: three floors of a rambling Victorian house are seen on the same theatrical plane. This means that characters on different storeys are hilariously juxtaposed and that they mimetically ascend and descend imaginary stairs. But the play is also about the metaphorical steps the characters are forced to take. We yearn to know whether Elizabeth, a former dancer, will escape the overbearing clutches of her rich husband, Roland, who is poised to buy the supposedly haunted house. Equally, we wait to discover whether the dithering Kitty, briefly reunited with Elizabeth's monstrously boring brother, will elude his sleep-inducing presence.
The collision of these characters, plus a shy solicitor and the house's unscrupulous owner, depends on farcical contrivance. But what matters is the technical brilliance with which Ayckbourn exploits the situation: he is a master of the delayed reaction, so that Elizabeth's farewell note to her husband sits unopened for much of the first act like an ominously ticking bomb. Even more crucially, Ayckbourn creates real people rather than the demented marionettes who usually inhabit farce. A supreme case is the nervous solicitor, Tristram: a man whose sentences emerge in a jumble yet who, pressed to make a choice over the property sale, takes the moral line. Ayckbourn also slyly suggests that virtue brings rather more than its own reward, in that the tentative Tristram ends up enjoying a surprising amount of unsolicited sex.
Ayckbourn's production vividly endorses the key point: that we are watching plausible people in improbable situations. Michael Simkins is superb as the seemingly self-assured Roland; the basilisk-like stare with which he fixes the clueless Tristram is hilarious, yet it gives a strange pathos to Roland's ultimate breakdown. But this level of truth extends to all the performances. Anna Francolini perfectly captures the pretensions of the fugitive Elizabeth with her aspirations towards the ballet, Stephen Beckett is all stiff self-righteousness as her narcolepsy-inducing brother and Matthew Cottle as Tristram exudes a wondrously bewildered decency. Even if not every corner of Michael Holt's set is easily visible, this is a joyous revival that confirms Ayckbourn's classic status and proves farce can, literally, exist on several levels at once.
(The Guardian, 30 March 2010)

Taking Steps (by Dominic Maxwell)
Here’s an Alan Ayckbourn revival that sets the record straight. Thirty years ago, this mini masterpiece of a farce became one of Ayckbourn’s rare flops when it moved from his Scarborough theatre-in-the-round to the proscenium arch of the Lyric, Hammersmith in London. It lost so much of its charm that it made Ayckbourn’s wife cry at the interval.
Here, Ayckbourn’s production is an absolute delight that makes superb use of an ingenious central conceit. The action takes place over three floors of a country house. But each of the rooms - living room, master bedroom, attic bedroom - is represented simultaneously in the middle of a furniture-filled stage. Two narrow corridors, right by the front row’s legs, are the two staircases - and the cast trot up and down the marked steps to represent going upstairs and downstairs.
It’s hard to explain but incredibly satisfying to watch. At one point, Matthew Cottle’s tongue-tied lawyer Tristram is left in the living room, thinking that he’s alone in a house that is haunted. Meanwhile, next to him, Anna Francolini’s Elizabeth is stomping around the master bedroom, packing her bags to leave her husband Roland. And as Cottle raises his head nervously to follow the footsteps, the audience makes the sort of imaginative leap that only theatre can offer.
Ayckbourn’s plot is as forensically foolish as farce needs to be, yet with his unmistakable undertow of emotional dereliction. Michael Simkins’s Roland, a buckets magnate, is too busy being a boozer and a blowhard to see what’s going on around him. Stephen Beckett as Elizabeth’s brother Mark is a good chap and a borderline idiot.
He’s louder than his wife, Emily Pithon’s sullen Kitty, but both of them struggle to connect with anyone. And then there’s Adrian McLoughlin as the bumptious builder Bainbridge, whose bonhomie conceals avarice and panic.
Nobody is better than Ayckbourn at depicting the way our private agendas sit alongside, and sometimes subsume entirely, our public faces. And this comical parable about the push-pull between freedom and confinement is given wings by a staging device that, literally, puts our solipsism centre stage. But this is, first and foremost, funny. The wrong couple unwittingly cop off together in the dark. Kitty’s Dear John letter is mistaken for Roland’s suicide note. A fold-up bed folds up with someone in it.
Maybe the first half's set-up is marginally more interesting than the second half, when the farcical mechanics take over. But what a joy throughout to sit so close to a cast who give us equal parts emotional truth and comical commitment.
Taken out of this environment, we might no longer feel as if we’re actually inside Michael Holt’s cramped period set. But Cottle’s underplaying would be masterful anywhere, Simkins’s brittle captain of industry could make himself heard in a snowstorm. So I urge you to seize on this chance to see Ayckbourn’s (marginally) larger-than-life characters in this life-size setting.
(The Times, 30 March 2010)

Taking Steps (by Henry Hitching)
Alan Ayckbourn is enjoying a renaissance. Between 2003 and 2007 none of his plays was put on in the West End; in 1975 he had five running there simultaneously. But of late the acclaimed staging of
The Norman Conquests at the Old Vic, together with several other successful revivals, has inspired new interest in a writer whose productivity has sometimes caused him to be undervalued. 
Taking Steps is a farce from the Seventies - a portrait of dysfunctional suburbanites, directed by Ayckbourn himself. It’s nicely observed and, at times, raucously funny; amid the domestic carnage there is some silvery writing about strained relationships. 
Events take place across three floors of a house near Maidenhead. There’s no triple-decker set but the different strands of action are presented on the same stage, concurrently. This proves a source of rich visual comedy.
The characters appear trapped by their mannerisms, mostly to amusing effect, and the performances are vigorous, with Michael Simkins especially good as self-important Roland. Anna Francolini is vividly anxious as his wife, and there’s a delightfully gormless turn by Matthew Cottle as their blundering solicitor.
If you’re looking for belly laughs and the ludicrous,
Taking Steps will deliver. But it prompts a sobering thought. “New comedy” today means stand-up more often than drama. Our masters of comic theatre - Ayckbourn, Tom Stoppard, Michael Frayn - are in their seventies. Where are the successors?
(Evening Standard, 29 March 2010)

Taking Steps (by Michael Coveney)
Taking Steps, first seen in London 30 years ago, is Alan Ayckbourn’s only outright farce, and the Orange Tree revival is doubly significant: it’s jaw-breakingly funny, and it’s directed by the author, making his debut in that capacity at the little Richmond in-the-round that is like a squashed version of his own back yard in Scarborough.
The play is dedicated to the grand old man of British farce, Ben Travers, and sure enough the action takes place in a creaky old cavern of a house, as in
Thark, where a desperate fiancée is locked in an attic, and a hapless solicitor called Tristram is unwittingly seduced by the desperate housewife of the man trying to seal a deal on the place.
That man is a classic Ayckbournian suburban entrepreneur, Roland Crabbe, big in buckets and expanding into rubbish bins, who brings round a balding building buddy, Bainbridge, to test the spring in the floor and case the joint. At the same time, Roland’s wife, Elizabeth is trying to escape, while her brother Mark sends everyone to sleep the minute he opens his mouth.
It’s all brilliantly organised, and played in an epic three-dimensional madhouse with simultaneous action and cross-fades on different floors, characters tripping up invisible stairs round the edge like mincing fairies. Crabbe fuels them with copious amounts of alcohol before turning nasty: “I could make life very difficult for you if you ever wanted to get into hardware,” he tells Tristram.
The latter is played by Matthew Cottle like a seraphic, less hectic version of Richard Briers, and is totally delightful, bouncing off the booming tunnel-visioned Crabbe of an inspired, ridiculous Michael Simkins with a mixture of serenity and blankness that registers his total confusion at where he has ended up.
Anna Francolini is hilarious, too, as the hard-edged ex-dancer straining to be free while practicing her entrechats, Stephen Beckett is her morose lump of a brother and Emily Pithon the poor mad woman in the attic (thank you, Charlotte Bronte).
And there is a perfect Bainbridge from Adrian McLoughlin, a beaming fixer of beams and RSJ’s wearing a terrifying biker’s helmet with a barathea blazer and a roly-poly smile. Comedy bliss.
(whatsonstage.com, 29 March 2010)

Taking Steps (by John Thaxter)
Now retired from Scarborough duties Alan Ayckbourn, still in top form, has revived his hilarious thirty-year-old farce especially for the Orange Tree and I predict a busy box office.
Dedicated to the immortal Ben Travers, this is Richmond’s most blissfully funny evening for a generation, the playing time stretching out as the audience laughs itself silly for the better part of three hours.
Ayckbourn sets his action in a crumbling, haunted house but simultaneously on three floors, connected by invisible staircases enacted by the cast as they rush from one level to another while staying on the ground floor.
Thus bedroom and attic events overlap with living-room chat lubricated by stiff whiskeys, while an inarticulate conveyancing solicitor who cannot end a sentence without getting the words in the wrong order - brilliantly played by Matthew Cottle - finds himself innocently enjoying a night in bed with someone else’s wife, then with her brother’s intended.
This string of farcical events defies brief description. Suffice to say that more than one character ends up mistaken for a pill-popping suicide as unread notes of farewell serve as tragic time bombs.
Stephen Beckett as Mark, a ponderous male, reveals an impressive ability to turn cliché into rich comedy, while Anna Francolini as his sister Liz, a limber dancer and compulsive bolter, does bedroom ballet workouts that threaten the living-room ceiling.
In the key role as the thrice-deserted Roland, a hard-drinking business tycoon, Michael Simkins does a glorious turn as the generous supplier of drinks who suddenly collapses into childlike grief when his latest wife runs off.
Completing a superbly drilled cast, Adrian McLoughlin plays the disreputable landlord in a terrifying biker’s helmet and leathers, while Emily Pithon as Mark’s fey fiancee makes her bid for life, love and liberty.
(The Stage, 29 March 2010)

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