Written by Alan Ayckbourn
Directed by Robin Herford
If the authenticity of the dreariness of a committee meeting seems spot-on, it will come as no shock to hear of writer Alan Ayckbourn’s endless experiences with councils and organisations as he too attempted to secure funding for theatre projects. A herald of British comedic writing, Ayckbourn is renowned for an astute dissection for the notorious thirst and depravities of commonplace relationships, staging them in remarkably familiar surroundings. Then, there is Ten Times Table.
Ayckbourn’s position as playwright should, inherently, place his writing squarely in the ability to take all sides, weigh them accordingly and balance the reality of the situation with the comedy elements. Instead, Ayckbourn seems to find himself stagnant on the same table the committee seems intent on never leaving. Ten Times Table is neither a full-fledged farce nor capitalising on more than pleasant Sunday afternoon chuckle.
Heading this committee is Ray, who naively attempts to find harmony with other representatives of the town, including his wife Helen, rallying them behind a historical re-enactment. Of course, history has an uncanny ability to repeat itself, often with disastrous consequences. Slowly (very slowly) the committee drag themselves up and out of the bar long enough to hold their first meeting. As Helen finds a nemesis in self-proclaimed Marxist Eric, a state-comprehensive teacher, the remaining members find themselves drawn into an impending breakdown between the two. Battle lines are drawn, war is about to break, but the tension is as taut as a well-worn slipper.
Robert Daws’ Ray is a remarkably upbeat character, with an approachability entirely unexpected from the role. There’s principally nothing offensive to the character, perfectly pleasant (if a little dull), Daws brings likeability and interest where other performers may have lost our attention. His ability to curve the tone of his annunciation to coax out a laugh from the audience offers a little more depth to the character, and he works well with Deborah Grant playing Helen – who herself injects a tremendous weight of rural-town, middle-class venom into the part.
The stage never feels large enough for the cast, incorporating a few extra players on the board as we introduce characters Tim (Harry Gostelow) and timid-sounding Philippa (Rhiannon Handy). Robin Herford’s direction helps promote the small-town feel of standing on top of one another, no secrets to hide but plenty of noses about, but there’s only so much he and the cast can work with. Both Mark Curry and Robert Duncan have the potential for rich development which never strays far into the narrative, Duncan’s role as Laurence; a man going through a marital breakdown seems more a nuisance to the committee rather than a genuine area to build relationships on.
Michael Holt’s design work is quaint, refusing to commit to unnecessary set-work when the minimum will do – opting for a had-its-best-days look of a hotel conference room, complete with table and piano. If anything, the scale of this table, dominating the stage, is too accurate in depiction. The production’s first half is largely spoken wordplay in its comedy, with the occasional facial expression. It looms, overbearing the cast who have little room for manoeuvring, limiting their range of reactions and interactions with one another.
In stark contrast, the second half-strips away the table to the morning of the gala, chaos bubbling beyond the doors. Here, Ayckbourn’s play takes a steady leap towards the shaping of a farce, which is carried off by all performers well. Notably short, the second halves’ 30-minute run time makes for a brief punch of comedy, but only offers a sliver of what the cast is capable of, notably Gostelow’s physicality.
Further distorting the script, Craig Gazey delivers a perfect comedic narcissism to the Marxist character which the Daily Mail would gleefully write about. He and Deborah Grant’s characterisation exhibit a wealth of passionate exposition at loggerheads, but they’re written as such one-note caricatures that quickly the joke ebbs. In no fault of the performers, it limits how we connect with the characters on-stage, distancing us from a fully dimensional performance. The animosity the two shares isn’t unfounded, but it feels far less like biting social commentary and far more similar to a plot-thread you might bump into on re-runs.
Technology and politics may change, but people do not; Ten Times Table reflects the culture it imitates, mimicking the irritation of a committee meeting while capturing the lengths petty squabbles and small-town mindsets can grow. It fails to develop any sense of relationship for the characters, instead, allowing itself to lapse into a meander of paint-by-numbers sitcom structure. No sense of urgency or genuine threat is felt for character relationships or outcomes. It’s by far one of Ayckbourn’s weaker plays, a product of the time but the Classic Comedy Theatre Companie’s tour fails to find any relevance with a modern audience outside of a few cheap gags, niggling chuckles but does profit from an accomplished cast who are attempting their best with a limp script.
Ten Times Table runs at The King’s Theatre until February 8th. Tickets available from: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/ten-times-table
Photo Credit: Pamela Raith