REVIEW: Ayckbourn’s Ten Times Table does not add up to riotous comedy, alas

Robert Daws’ committee chairman Ray, left, and Mark Curry’s pedantic Councillor Donald Evans in Ten Times Table. Pictures: Pamela Raith

REVIEW: Alan Ayckbourn’s Ten Times Table, The Classic Comedy Theatre Company, Grand Opera House, York, until Saturday. Box office: 0844 871 3024 or atgtickets.com/york

IMPRESARIO and prolific producer Bill Kenwright has his name on multiple shows that frequent the Grand Opera House, from musicals to the Agatha Christie, Classic Thriller and Classic Screen To Stage companies.

Now add The Classic Comedy Theatre Company to that list, making their debut tour either side of Christmas with Ten Times Table, Alan Ayckbourn’s “calamitous comedy by committee” from 1977, the year when committees popped up everywhere to mark HM The Queen’s Silver Jubilee.

Those stellar names of British theatre, Kenwright and Ayckbourn, are complemented by a third: Robin Herford, perennial director of The Woman In Black and much else, not least past productions of Ayckbourn’s Just Between Ourselves at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, and Relatively Speaking, Confusions, Bedroom Farce and Season’s Greetings elsewhere.

What’s more, Ayckbourn cast him as pedantic, punctilious, punctuation and procedure-obsessed Councillor Donald Evans in his SJT premiere of Ten Times Table in January 1977.

Everything sounded so promising for Herford’s touring production, not least a cast starring Robert Daws, Robert Duncan, Mark Curry and Deborah Grant. Certainly, more promising than the gloomy forecast that the River Ouse floodwaters could be seeping beneath the Grand Opera House doors by 6am, prompting senior management to stay on watchful guard through the night.

Thankfully, such concerns turned out to be a false dawn. Alas, Ten Times Table proved to be a damp squib too: that rare occasion when an Ayckbourn play just isn’t very funny any more.

Maybe we are spoilt by Sir Alan’s revivals of his classics at the Stephen Joseph Theatre each summer season; maybe they better suit the bear-pit setting of the SJT’s theatre in the round: more intimate, more inclusive, more apt for the combative nature of his vintage comedies. Maybe it is significant that Ten Times Table has never been among those revivals.

Misfiring: Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy Ten Times Table fires blanks in Robin Herford’s touring production

Here in York, on a proscenium-arch stage, as with the body of a giraffe, Ten Times Table feels like the work of a committee. Or the work of a committee like the one we are watching as they assemble maybe ten times around the table (although your reviewer lost count).

Welcome to the “miscellaneous assemblage” of the Pendon Folk Festival committee, gathering beneath the erratic lights of the faded grand ballroom of the Swan Hotel, as Seventies as hotel grey gravy and over-boiled veg and as tired as the comedy in Michael Holt’s design.

The pathway to the Pendon Pageant will be a bumpy one, all the more so for the irascible, over-excitable disposition of chairman Ray (Robert Daws), who bores everyone, audience included unfortunately, as he recounts Pendon’s most dramatic news story of the past.

Now the 18th century army massacre of the radical Pendon Twelve agricultural agitators is to be re-enacted on pageant day. Ayckbourn duly sets up matching class warfare: middle-class conservatism on one side, represented by smug Ray; his constantly peeved, overbearing wife Helen (Deborah Grant); a mad, revolver-toting military dog-breeder, Tim (Harry Gostelow), and ineffectual dullard Councillor Evans (Mark Curry).

Always accompanying Evans is his octogenarian mum Audrey (Elizabeth Power), the minute-taking but pretty much deaf committee secretary who never delivers the minutes, dithering dottily except when a drink or the chance to play the piano comes her way.

On the other side, representing the agitators, is the truculent Marxist martyr, comprehensive schoolteacher Eric (Craig Gazey), and his acolytes, the ever-underwhelming Sophie (Gemma Oaten), even a disappointment to herself, and the almost impossibly quietly spoken costume maker Philippa (Rhiannon Handy).

No idea where he is, the sozzled Laurence (Robert Duncan) stumbles from marital crisis to the next marital crisis.

Ayckbourn depicts the minutiae of committee conduct with trademark mischief making but somehow this Ten Times Table does not add up amid the personality and ideological clashes. The power-driven Ray is as irritating as the banging on the floor above; plenty of others follow suit, and, especially in the long first half, the comedy feels too slow, too forced, the timing……..off.

Charles Hutchinson

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