2000s >> 2001 >> no-1158-january-2001

Theatre Review: Phoney folk in Loamshire

House and Garden. The National Theatre

Alan Ayckbourn’s separate but linked plays, performed by the same group of actors on two of the National’s stages at the same time, were the hottest tickets in town during the late summer. Ayckbourn was fêted, called variously a wizard and a magician, and praised for “his astonishing ingenuity”.

No doubt some of this was justified. To write interlocking plays which can be performed at the same time on two stages, by the same group of actors playing the same characters, clearly requires no little skill. And certainly there was an edge for the audiences, watching in the Lyttelton and Olivier theatres, as they imagined the actors scuttling backstage between the two theatres, leaving one stage only to reappear on the other with seconds to spare. But to my eyes the experience was all about style rather than substance; a triumph of the pseudo.

In the early 1950s, in the days when theatrical productions were still the subject of censorship by the Lord Chamberlain—when for most people contemporary plays were as remote from everyday life as money for the starving poor—Kenneth Tynan had a fine time lampooning the theatrical establishment. He complained that most new plays seemed to be set in some fictitious county which he called Loamshire. He noted that they involved such worthies as the Rt. Hon Angela This and Lord Archibald That. He observed that they all took place in country houses with large lounges or drawing rooms complete with (seemingly compulsory) French windows. And that all the houses were staffed by country bumpkins, or cockney housekeepers and supercilious butlers. It was drama courtesy of Mills & Boon, and it was a sham.

I was reminded of Loamshire as I sat, ever more uncomfortable by the minute, watching first House, and then Garden. I recognised none of the people on stage. I wouldn’t have known them in the 1950s but now, fifty years later, they were even more crass and unlikely. Shallow fictions in a make-believe world. But wouldn’t you just guess? The critics loved the plays, and most of the supposedly sophisticated audiences seemed to share their feelings.

For my part I’m not really interested in the fate of some supposedly successful businessman, boozy and promiscuous by turns, whose behaviour on stage confirms that he wouldn’t last a day in the real world of 21st-century capitalism. I find it impossible to laugh when someone goes out of their mind because they have been ditched by their lover, and I find it hard to sit next to people who think such things are funny. And as for the well-heeled young man, a sixth-form student at some prestigious school and supposedly the ace reporter on the local rag, whose naivety and lack of nous would embarrass an eleven-year-old—he was straight out of the world of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster.

It says much for the dumbing-down of critical taste, to say nothing of the prejudices of the broadsheet press, that such vacuous nonsense should be received with such acclaim. These are plays which are hurtful. Glib and invalid, masquerading as significant social commentaries. My judgment: patronising pap about phoney folk.


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