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Eleven hours of wonderful contrasts; A day of Ayckbourn left John Slim cheered by its humour and moved by its emotion.

Byline: John Slim

I had a whole day of theatre at Malvern on Saturday - lured by the prospect of seeing Alan Ayckbourn's new trilogy, Damsels in Distress, on its pre-West End try-out, all in one splendid slab.

The three plays - GamePlan, FlatSpin and RolePlay - had been done in repertoire all the week, but on Saturday we were getting the lot, one in the morning, one in the afternoon and one in the evening.

By the way, don't blame your favourite newspaper for its apparent inability to separate its words: Mr Ayckbourn has for some reason been beguiled by the same fatheaded fad as the developers who named Brindleyplace and BullRing. Poor old BullRing doesn't even get a definite article any more, let alone the space to swing a bull.

But I digress. An acting company of seven people each took on widely-differing roles in presenting all three plays over a period of 11 hours. It was a superb marathon effort, and I was saddened only by the suspicion that when Damsels in Distress hits the West End the cast could be changed because the West End thinks that lesser-known actors are of necessity less competent ones.

The linking theme is contained in the umbrella title: all the plays are about women facing some kind of crisis in a posh riverside apartment in London's Docklands. Unlike Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests trilogy, they concern different characters and there is no pretence of simultaneous action going on in all three.

Inevitably, it seems, with Ayckbourn these days, there is a dark side. Indeed, RolePlay goes more for unpleasantness than laughter. But this mix of contrasts has never worried me: I think that the dark makes the humour all the funnier, and the fun adds to the effectiveness of the sombre side.

Indeed, my only quibble with a day of wonderful theatre is that I think Sir Alan - who directed it as well as writing it - staged the plays in the wrong order.

GamePlan a rib-tickling joy with the unlikely-sounding theme of a 16-year-old girl setting herself up as a call girl and having her first client die before he has left her mother's apartment - went on first. Had it been saved for the evening performance, the all-day audience would have gone out on a chuckling high.

As it was, RolePlay came last, leaving its menacing thug, its consignment of drugs and a pretty serious fight between two women uppermost in our thoughts. An excellent play, but not the Ayckbourn we know and love.

When Damsels in Distress is released to amateurs, I can foresee no group tackling it as a threesome, and there is no need for it to happen. Moreover, I have no doubt that GamePlan, with its wonderful, stupid-bespectacled-schoolgirl role there for the taking, will top the amateur popularity poll over its two stable-mates.

More and more groups are feeling the pinch these days, and more and more are banking on comedy to bring back the patrons. This one's a corker.

Our friends the gremlins have crept into the Swan Theatre Company's publicity for its world premire of The Love Nest, by Brian Hopkins, at the Swan Theatre, Worcester, tomorrow.

It calls it the world premier - which surely is something that the globetrotting Tony Blair is widely accused of thinking he is.

Solihull's Union Theatre is going to miss Helen Tannock, who is about to go and live in the United States following her marriage to the Rev Nick Parker, of Yardley, last month.

Helen joined the group 13 years ago, when she was 15, and has been part of its annual pilgrimage to the Edinburgh Festival ever since. Last year, despite having an emergency appendicitis operation a week earlier, she went north and took a principal role as Hannah in Alan Ayckbourn's A Chorus of Disapproval.

It is 50 years since Frederick Knott's Dial M for Murder first had an audience biting its fingernails. Time has not removed its edge, nor indeed the edge of its seats, and that's where the patrons will be when Walsall's Grange Players open their season with it on Thursday next week.

WHAT'S ON Quartet, Sutton Arts Theatre, Sutton Coldfield (Aug 29-Sept 7).

The Love Nest, Swan Theatre Company, Swan Theatre, Worcester (Aug 29-Sept 7). Snoopy, the Musical, Nuneaton Amateur Operatic & Dramatic Society Youth Group, Abbey Theatre, Nuneaton (Sept 2-7). The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, Priory Theatre, Kenilworth (Sept 4-14). The Mating Game, Kidderminster Operatic & Dramatic Society, Rose Theatre, Kidderminster (Sept 4-7).

Dancing in the Streets, Moat Players, St Mary's Church Hall, Hobs Meadow, Solihull (Sept 5-7).

Dial M for Murder, Grange Players, Grange Playhouse, Walsall (Sept 5-14).
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 28, 2002
Words:775
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