ALAN Ayckbourn’s Ten Times Table is the one with “the committee from hell and a fete worse than death”.
Premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in 1977, when inspired by the myriad committees that formed for The Queen’s Silver Jubilee that year, Ayckbourn’s calamitous comedy by committee now forms the inaugural production by the Classic Comedy Theatre Company, on tour at the Grand Opera House, York, from Monday.
This is the latest theatrical enterprise from impresario Bill Kenwright, whose Agatha Christie, Classic Thriller and Classic Screen to Stage companies are familiar to York audiences over the past 15 years in shows replete with star names.
Among the company, alongside the likes of Robert Daws, Robert Duncan and Deborah Grant, is Mark Curry, the former Blue Peter presenter, now 57.
Taking on the role of pedantic Donald brings back memories of his own encounter with Ayckbourn, artistic director of the SJT at the time, when Mark was pretty much straight out of drama school.
“Apart from auditioning for Alan back in the day, I’ve never met him since then, but I’d love to do as he’s such a brilliant man, and I’d love to sit him down and ask him about the characters in Ten Times Table,” he says.
What did Ayckbourn say when he did audition you, Mark? “He said, ‘you’re not quite ready yet, but you have such energy’.” As perceptive as ever in his people-watching, Ayckbourn highlighted a characteristic that Curry has since brought to his career, whether on Blue Peter, in theatre roles or as a radio presenter.
As chance would have it, Ayckbourn still did play his part in Mark’s milk-teeth days as a professional actor. “I was in rep [repertory theatre] for about three years at Harrogate Theatre, when Mark Piper was the artistic director, and one of the parts I did was a non-speaking role in, ironically, Ten Times Table,” he recalls.
“I played Max Kirkov, a really strange character who walks on and carries off the leading lady, played in that production by Jean Fergusson, who went on to be Marina in Last Of The Summer Wine for so many years.”
In fact, Mark knows Ayckbourn’s comedy very well, for this latest tour is his third encounter with Ten Times Table, a “predominantly sedentary farce” – the Scarborough playwright’s own description – set in the long-since grand ballroom of the Swan Hotel.
Here, a most miscellaneous assemblage has gathered to conduct the business of the Pendon Folk Festival, led by excitable chairman Ray. Unfortunately for Ray, his committee quickly divides as his wife Helen has a bone to pick.
Then add a nitpicking councillor, a Marxist schoolteacher, a military dog-breeder and an octogenarian secretary, and turbulence is on its way.
Second time around, Mark played Ray, the fulcrum of all the chaos, on a six-week tour. Now, director Robin Herford has cast him as Councillor Donald Evans, a character whose pen portrait for auditionees describes him as “a professional committee man who likes nothing better than a good agenda. A glasses-wearing pedant who is precise to the point of obsession; always accompanied by his mother, Audrey.”
“What made me do it this time was that Robin was directing. He was the first person to play Donald for Alan Ayckbourn in 1977, by the way, and I’d done Woman In Black at the Fortune Theatre in London, with Robin directing, as he always does with that play, in 1994.
“I remember saying to him, ‘I want to play the older guy [in Woman In Black]; I’m really ready for it’.”
Instead, Mark played The Actor, the younger role in Stephen Mallatratt’s play, but perhaps he could work on Herford during the Ten Times Table run to suggest he is even more ready now, 26 years on, to be cast as Arthur Kipps.
Mark is no stranger to Ayckbourn plays, having appeared in Bedroom Farce, How The Other Half Loves, Season’s Greetings and Joking Apart too, and after resuming the Ten Times Table tour in late-January that began with six weeks of shows before Christmas, he is greatly enjoying the role of Donald.
“He’s described as ‘grey man’. Well, I’m grey now! He’s this pedantic, boring little man and it really bothers him when there’s a spelling mistake or grammatical error! Apparently, Alan had encountered someone like that in a committee meeting!
“Anyway, Donald, who still lives with his mum, is really obsessed with details. It’s a role as real as you could make it, and there’s so much more to this part than just being a boring little man.”
Mark is rather less enamoured by committee meetings. “I remember being on a tennis club committee at a lovely club in Horsforth. I volunteered and was very enthusiastic, but what I soon realised was that while we all had one thing in common – we all loved tennis – we were all different characters who’d end up arguing, even though we all wanted the club to thrive,” he recalls.
“You think, if this is what happens with a small-scale committee, imagine what it must be like when it matters on a world scale!”
What next might come Mark’s way? Would he, for example, fancy playing dame in pantomime, now that such a vacancy exists at a theatre not far from the Grand Opera House? “The dame is the only role I could do in pantomime now,” he says. “It would be lovely to do it.” Watch this space!
The Classic Comedy Theatre Company in Alan Ayckbourn’s Ten Times Table, Grand Opera House, York, Monday to Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Wednesday and Saturday matinees. Box office: 0844 871 3024 or at atgtickets.com/york.
Copyright of The Press, York