Newbury’s Watermill, located in a 200-year-old countryside mill barn and gardens beside a stream, is one of Britain’s most bucolic theatrical addresses.
It’s the perfect home for one of Alan Ayckbourn’s most audacious theatrical games: two entirely separate but overlapping plays, performed in real time alongside one another by the same cast to two different audiences in adjoining locations.
At its London premiere in 2000, it played simultaneously in the National Theatre’s Olivier and Lyttelton. Now it has been remade as a site-specific production, with House playing inside the theatre and Garden playing outdoors beside it to an audience seated in two temporary covered stands.
When characters hide in the bushes, there’s no need for props: the bushes are real, and this adds to the hilarity and heartbreak of the play.
The first feat of Elizabeth Freestone’s brisk, buoyant production is to achieve the seamless synchronicity demanded of the text. As a character declares in Stoppard’s Rosencrnatz and Guildenstern are Dead, “Look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else”. In Ayckbourn’s plays that holds true: when a character leaves the house, they reappear in the garden.
Ayckbourn’s matchless technical mastery is to make each play stand alone so that you don’t need to know what’s happening in the alternative location to follow them, though when you see the second one inevitably some blanks are filled in.
We are in familiar Ayckbourn territory: unhappy marriages, fuelled by infidelities, serial bullying and even mental breakdown. It’s remarkable, as ever, how much pain he adds to the comedy. The plays are lent real depth and feeling – and a vivid sense of reality – by the setting.
A country squire, whose father and grandfather have been the local MP before him, and who is being courted to stand for the next election, is having an affair with the wife of his doctor neighbour – and best friend. The annual summer village fete is also being held in the grounds of his home and it will be opened by a visiting French film star.
In the exquisitely charted marital jigsaw that follows, Freestone’s cast negotiate the comedy but also the tragedies with perfect comic timing as well as emotional truth. Teresa Banham brings a brittle poise to the betrayed wife, while Tim Treloar, as her husband, is a picture of boorish insensitivity, an opportunist in his career (ready to jump at the calling of a political party operative) as well as in bed (or bush or tent).
The woman with which he is having the affair is tenderly played by Cate Hamer, in a performance full of vulnerability and need; her patient, forgiving husband is exquisitely played by Robert Mountford, as a man forever putting his own needs last. But the real heartbreaker is Sally Tatum’s Lindy, who, constantly harried and undermined by husband Barry, makes her own spirited bid for freedom.