This year at Pitlochry, it’s all about the sets. In the opening production, Carousel, the set was so elaborate that it almost seemed to overwhelm the acting and singing.
GamePlan, FlatSpin and RolePlay | Pitlochry Festival Theatre | Rating ****
In the second show – the 1920s Ben Travers farce Thark – Nigel Hook’s set was unashamedly the star of the show. And in this latest series of shows – a trilogy of Alan Ayckbourn plays from the early 2000s, known collectively as Damsels In Distress – the only obvious link between the three plays (apart from the fact that they are all performed by the same cast of seven), lies in Ken Harrison’s understated but perfectly pitched set design, which shows the main open-plan living room and kitchen of an elegant flat in London’s docklands.
In a programme note, Harrison describes the space as being “sandblasted and refitted in the approved post-industrial style, leaving little trace of the lives lived there previously.”
And it’s against this backdrop that Ayckbourn spins out his three dark and hilarious stories of fear and loathing, love, desperation and violence, in affluent London before the financial crash. In the first play, GamePlan, a mother and daughter are struggling to stay in their expensive flat, after the collapse of the mother’s company, and the desertion of her husband, who was also her business partner.
Her clear-eyed 16-year-old daughter Sorrel conceives the plan of setting up an internet prostitution business to raise ready cash in large quantities; but the plan collapses when Sorrel’s first client dies of a heart attack on the premises, leading her sad, truncated little family – including her loyal schoolfriend from upstairs, Kelly – to face up to a frightening and slightly surreal confrontation with the misogynistic forces of law and order, and of judgmental tabloid morality.
In the second play, FlatSpin, the streak of the surreal is even more marked, as out-of-work actress and part-time janitor Rosie, magnificently played by the lovely Gemma McElhinney, is busy watering the plants in the flat when she is tempted by a handsome visitor from across the hall to pretend to be the wealthy absentee tenant, only to discover that her Prince Charming is not what he seems, and is about to suck her into some very dangerous business indeed, involving a ruthless arm of the British law enforcement system, and a very sinister female drug trafficker.
And in the third, RolePlay, Ayckbourn reverts to more familiar dinner-party-from-hell territory, as young professional couple Justin and Julie-Ann try to introduce her near-fascist parents from up north to his drunken mother from Guildford, only to find the whole party blown apart - physically, morally, politically and erotically – by the sudden arrival on the balcony of a battered but gorgeous gangster’s moll from the flat upstairs, once again played by Gemma McElhinney, this time with a truly haunting mix of fragility, raunchiness, and life-affirming sweetness, matched by Christopher Price’s trapped but rebellious Justin.
Sometimes, the plays seem to lose focus slightly, and become just a shade too daft and stereotyped; it’s certainly true that the power of the performances varies, and that the trilogy as a whole is stronger than any one of its parts.
At their best, though – with the endless parade of brash, neon-lit party-boats passing on the river outside, and the space inside never able to live up to the dream of serene domestic elegance its appearance suggests – these plays, under Richard Baron’s thoughtful direction, capture a powerful sense of something rotten in the heart of millennial Britain; a boom time that looks good on its sandblasted surface, but in fact rests on foundations too violent, too criminal, too loveless and too morally lost, for anything like comfort.
• All three plays are in repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until October