While fake news isn’t at the centre of Better Off Dead, it certainly swirls around the edges of this bleakly comic play.
Its protagonist, writer Algy Waterbridge (played with a cantankerous swagger by Christopher Godwin), finds himself drawn into a bizarre, real-life drama after a disastrous interview with an inept journalist, Gus Crewes (Leigh Symonds), who is more in love with fiction than serious reportage.
Alongside the strangeness of Waterbridge’s own life, not least dealing with his increasingly bewildered wife Jessica (Eileen Battye), the characters of his latest novel – starring the flinty Yorkshire detective DCI Tommy Middlebrass (a wonderfully dour Russell Dixon) – seem intent on rebelling against their creator.
Under Ayckbourn’s simple and effective direction, staged around the raised wooden dais of Waterbridge’s writing room, we peek into the novelist’s mind: the lighting scheme becomes moody each time Middlebrass and his “soft southerner” sidekick DS Gemma Price (Naomi Petersen) begin acting out his thoughts – and get a sense of a man who, having lived much of his life on his own terms, is now losing his hold on the creative process and those closest to him.
Control, or rather the lack of it, seems to be on Ayckbourn’s mind with his latest play, Waterbridge’s hatred of the new realities of the publishing business – the push towards money-spinning, movie-ready storylines – and of modern life (he never bothers updating, or even looking at his own website) creates an engagingly Canute-like figure.
As self-obsesessed as he is, it’s hard not to feel affection for Waterbridge each time he sits down at his laptop, and, with a roll of his shoulders like a boxer limbering up, prepares for his latest bout with the written word.