I’ve never been a fan of farce. In my head, farce equates to pouty-lipped Ooooooooh Vicar quips, buxom women ‘accidentally’ losing their clothes and a great deal of cringe-worthy sexual innuendo.
In fact, I’ve always thought of farce as a form of theatre that is not only out of fashion, but also an acquired taste. So it was with some trepidation that I entered the divinely rich art deco decadence that is the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, to watch Alan Ayckbourn’s Taking Steps. I came out afterwards realising that all this time I hadn’t really understood what a farce was.
As Simon Murgatroyd explains in the programme, a farce is “a play with broad humour, numerous complications and a generally improbable plot”. In hindsight, it’s clear to see that the only sort of farce I was aware of was what’s known as the ‘bedroom farce’, that genre of the aforementioned accidental nakedness and oooh errr missus guffaws. Surprisingly, Ayckbourn himself considers that, of the 81 plays he’s written, he has “only ever written one true farce” and it’s this one. So, if a farce isn’t a farce, or a farce is a complex and ancient form with many different styles, what makes Taking Steps a farce at all? No one loses their clothes in accidental hilarious fashion, there are no innuendos, but it is funny. It is funny, clever, brilliantly staged and wonderfully tongue-in-cheek about its own genre. And to be honest, does it even matter what category it fits into? If it works, it works.
And so, to the play. The show is in the round, which is a challenge for the set designers to say the least. The action takes place within different rooms of one large country house but, in reality, the ‘house’ is the same small footprint of space, which has three floors superimposed upon each other. It’s worth going to see this play just to see the actors going up and down ‘stairs’ which are in fact painted on the floor. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the set itself becomes another member of the cast, it becomes a joke in itself, tongue-in-cheek, with the actors and the audience members in on it, and the comedic tension that arises from waiting for someone to put a bag or a glass down on a piece of furniture that isn’t there.
This could become confusing and distracting if it wasn’t for the skill of the actors and their lack of pretence and pretentiousness. We are looking into a dollhouse, with different actors going about their business while other scenes become the focal point. The round has a compact seating arrangement, not uncomfortable but certainly cosy, with not much between seats. This means that the people on the front rows are almost a part of the scenery. I once lost my shoe to the stage after a somnambulistic large white wine while watching Hamlet here on the front row. An actor very kindly nudged it back towards me as he was reciting his piece. Those little things, far from being something that might ruin a show, become the little asides that make the audience/cast/writer relationship that bit stronger.
During Taking Steps, I laughed on and off, all the way through. Sometimes properly belly laughing. Looking around the audience, there were very few people without smiles on their faces. Ayckbourn himself says about the play: “I wrote it because I wanted to have fun at the time – and fun it’s proved to be wherever I’ve done it”. And it certainly is that. The comedy comes from the awkward social interactions between the characters as much as it does from the plot. I found Leigh Symonds’ portrayal of desperate house vendor, Leslie, absolutely believable in awkwardness and greasiness, very human, and Antony Eden’s bumblingly sweet solicitor, Tristram, genuinely funny. Louise Shuttleworth as Elizabeth was effortlessly funny, her brilliantly timed lines worked so well with Laurence Pears’ Mark, you couldn’t slip a piece of paper between them. Everyone in the cast performed with impeccable comic timing. And considering it has been 27 years since Taking Steps first graced the round, it has held up incredibly well.
Bravo, and not an accidental nude, bawdy vicar or slammed door in sight.
Photos: Tony Bartholomew
Taking Steps runs until October 5, 2017. For more information, click here.