Better Off Dead – Review – Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

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By Eve Luddington, September 2018

Centre stage in Better Off Dead is a stylish writing shed surrounded by garden. In it, Algy Waterbridge is writing his 33rd crime novel.

Audience members who’ve read their programme notes already know that DCI Tommy Middlebrass is the novel’s protagonist since, with characteristic attention to detail, Alan Ayckbourn has written an extract in it from this fictitious work. With a deft lighting change, the DCI and his new southern sidekick, Gemma Price, appear in the garden, acting out the story he’s writing and narrating. This is Ayckbourn’s wonderfully simple and innovative way of introducing us to his 82nd stagework which he also directs, and its look at the interplay between fiction and reality.

It’s fitting that the shed is centre stage: here, in a world of his own and proud of his reputation as a major writer, Algy creates and controls events. Throughout, the characters he invents play out their parts in his ‘Middlebrass’ novel as he works on it.

When the ‘real world’ intrudes, this is irritatingly not the case.

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“In tune with his tragi-comic tone”

Algy is somewhat protected from a prevailing fear by his devoted PA, Thelma, who tells him: ‘All the best writers are out of fashion now and then, till they’re re-discovered.’ But they have regular, revealing spats, too. Frustrated after he momentarily casts her as one of his characters, Thelma spits at him: ‘The world also consists of people other than yourself and your fictional characters.’ Significantly, one of those other people is his wife, Jessica, who forgets that she’s ‘popping out to the shops’ as soon as she mentions it. General dogsbody Thelma protects her, too.

But Algy is at the mercy of Thelma’s autonomous arrangements. When she organises an interview with ‘someone who went to school with you’, reclusive Algy fumes. Nevertheless, he resumes control by rehearsing a welcome for Gus Crewes which he executes beautifully. He’s an artist: he needs to create order. That order is perilised during the disastrous interview with Gus Crewes (Leigh Symonds) which sets in train a series of life-changing events for Algy.

Ayckbourn’s writing and direction are beautifully honed. His actors, most of whom have worked with him before and understand the challenges of theatre-in-round, are in tune with his tragi-comic tone and the essence of the characters he creates. The interview scene is a master-class in comic theatre.

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“Seasoned and versatile”

Crewes’ interview technique is appalling. It’s not surprising really – he’s an obituary writer. Leigh Symonds’ self-absorbed newspaper hack is gloriously shambolic and invidious, and Christopher Godwin’s timing and gauging of Algy’s slow emotional burn to volcanic eruption is exquisite in this scene. Gable is the perfect Algy in appearance, manner and interaction, revealing him as a cantankerous and vulnerable older man but master of his fiction.

Russell Dixon, a seasoned and versatile Ayckbourn actor, is the epitome of Algy’s heavy-drinking, brusque Yorkshire detective of a type familiar to crime readers and TV viewers. I’d have preferred his final scene to be a touch less naturalistic: until then Middlebrass seems a delightful, slightly larger-than-life character. Naomi Peterson, as his sidekick Gemma, ably portrays a young woman from the south, bemused at first by her boss, and gradually learning to appreciate his gruff kindness and ‘inneat’ (innate) sense of justice.

The ‘real life’ characters are crafted beautifully by Ayckbourn and easy to recognise as people we might know. Eileen Battye is sadly hilarious as the demented but chirpy Jessica, confident that the reason she can’t find the shops is that they’ve been relocated. Her final scene with Algy, when she believes him to be a drains expert, is deeply touching.

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“Darkly hilarious”

Liz Jadav as Thelma looks the perfect example of ‘complete averageness’, as Algy calls her, but she portrays a fully rounded character, not simply ‘salt of the earth’. She simpers to visitors and speaks home truths to her boss, working him beautifully. We can easily believe that this Thelma is more in control of Algy’s life than he is. She even takes it upon herself to risk his wrath by giving his unpublished children’s series he’s dismissed as drivel, massive online coverage. But, when absolutely necessary, her sensitivity is revealed.

In a gob-smacking climax to the first half of the play, Thelma enters hesitantly with a copy of The Times. Towards the back of the paper is Gus Crewe’s article. It’s an obituary. Reeling from the shock, Algy prods his body and mutters: ‘I’m still alive. Aren’t I?’

If I gave any more plot details, I’d spoil it. Suffice to say that the ‘bombs’ falling on and around Archy have darkly hilarious consequences, some effected by his publisher, Jason Ratcliffe. There are several digs at southerners in the play, but none more overt than in the mouth of Algy’s sickeningly smooth and brutal publisher, played by Laurence Pears. Pears stands tall and ignorant in his slickness and inhumanity. It’s a compliment to say that he gives a repulsive performance.

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“A work of great humanity”

In Better Off Dead, Ayckbourn has achieved the remarkable feat of dramatising and staging for a live audience the workings of a writer’s mind. He takes the audience on a theatrical journey to reveal something of how an author’s imagination channels life experiences and emotions into the relatively safe realm of fiction. Coming from this major playwright, it rings true. I have one little niggle, only mentioned because Ayckbourn’s technical direction is meticulous: I do wish the laptop, almost a character itself, had functioned more realistically.

Ayckbourn is a grand master of theatre. Yet again, he has blended the multiple elements of playwriting and direction to make an organic whole, richer than the sum of its parts. Better Off Dead is a deeply satisfying entertainment, full of wit, wisdom and irony but most notably, it’s a work of great humanity which left me thinking. I’m still pondering the question posed in some of the publicity: Are fiction, misunderstandings and mistaken identity closer to the truth than they should be?

Sitting at the back of the auditorium for the performance I attended, was Alan Ayckbourn himself. At the end, he joined the rest of the audience in enthusiastic applause for the deserving cast. I wanted to applaud him, too.

Pictures by Tony Bartholomew


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