You can always trust Alan Ayckbourn for something to watch in the Festive Season - and this is another Christmas cracker from Rep. Lighter even than the average Ayckbourn, the second act in particular ascends into a farce that rivals Noises Off for frenzy, timing and busy-ness, and exceeds it for absolute synergy of cast and crew (it's the first time I've seen a cast bow to the backstage, and truly the crew deserved a curtain call of its own). Director Corille Fraser has out Learninged (Walter) Learning with this production of Improbable Fiction.
The action is framed by yet another unbelievably good set, this time designed by Wayne Shepherd (who also wrote the original music), and constructed by Russell Brown and his henchmen to an extremely high standard - it's a large Tudor interior, with staircase and second floor corridor - and people were thundering up and down and along them all night. I've worked in flimsier offices. Actually I've lived in flimsier accommodation, especially in my student years.
This space hosts a meeting of the Pendon Writers' Circle, as dysfunctional as any small committee - and as entertaining to observe, provided you're not a member. There a few blocking issues which may already have been remedied, with some members of the circle facing away from the audience and occasionally hiding each other (from some places, Vivvi, Jess and Brevis are all in a line, and only Vivvi can clearly be seen - but she faces the back, so can't as easily be heard). Unnecessary, as the story provides for some members not to turn up, presumably in order to make a semi-circle arrangement possible without looking contrived. It's also true that this first act drags a little, but not a lot (the tea-pouring scene is deliberately excruciating), but it's all a set-up for the fabulous, frenetic payoff of Act Two, in which ... No, that would be a spoiler. Pretty much any description of Act Two will be a spoiler, damnit.
Jerry Hearn anchors all of the action as part-time author of instruction manuals, Arnold, whose house this is. Anyone who caught Hearn's wonderful performance a few years back in Rep's production of Stoppard's On The Razzle can only have been longing to see him in another farce, and he does not disappoint (this is also the nicest character he's played in years, I think!). He's a perfect Arnold, and as Act Two wears on, increasingly hilarious. Another standout was Euan Bowen as master of the malapropism, sci-fi wannabe Clem (and a host of other distinctly less insipid characters), who I think garnered more spontaneous applause on several of his exits than I've ever heard before in a Canberra theatre.
New Canberran Kate Blackhurst is impressive as Jess: farmer, lesbian quasi-separatist, and aspiring writer of florid gothic romances. (She and Hearn had flawless accents, and we know by now that I care about this). Christa de Jager, as Grace, the meek executrix of risibly execrable children's illustrations, seemed to struggle a little with her North Country accent in Act One, but was quite excellent in her variety of arguably tougher roles in Act Two. Heather Spong, introduced in Act one as the prolific but inexplicably unpublished crime writer Vivvi, nailed all of her characters from the outset but was the most fun to watch as the spontaneously lachrymose Sergeant Fiona. And Madeline Kennedy, as Arnold's mother-sitter Ilsa, has come a very long way since her (perfectly good) Chava in Fiddler back in February; she shows lovely depth and versatility, as well as admirable stagecraft for a relative neophyte.
Special mention must also be made of Andrew Kay, who stepped in at only two or three days notice to understudy for Jasan Savage* in the assorted roles belonging to Brevis, retired schoolteacher and curmudgeonly composer of small-scale musicals. (His Treasure Island for the local school garnered ten curtain calls. Says the encouraging Arnold: "They often don't even get that on the West End!" I LOL'ed). We were warned in an opening announcement that Kay was a last-minute substitute and might have to refer to the script here and there. And he did - though beautifully covered by clever use of props - but still, what a quite remarkable feat. The dialogue in this play is highly complicated, and the physical action (trust me) considerably more so, and Kay was an entertainment in himself. In fact, while it is easy to imagine the veteran Savage as blustery Brevis in Act One, by Act Two it was hard to see how anyone other than Kay could have taken on the role given the versatility - and physicality - the second half requires. This is one occasion when getting the understudy will not, I promise you, detract from your enjoyment by the smallest iota.
But back to the crew - Shepherd's set is revealed in Act Two to be as cunning as it is attractive, and ought to sprint away laughing with the CAT this year; the timing of those operating it is just as exceptional. Chris Ellyard's lighting is precisely perfect, and Michael Moloney's sound nicely complementary (with a minor early misfire neatly fielded and milked for a laugh by Jerry Hearn). Miriam Miley-Read's costumes must be as cleverly constructed as they are appealing, as innumerable lightning-fast costume changes were executed without the faintest hint of effort from the audience's perspective - there must have been a small army of dressers in the wings. Actually, there must have been an army of every sort of backstage crew contributing to this extraordinarily smooth delivery of a very technically demanding and complicated play, and its members - led by highly experienced Stage Manager Joyce Gore, and Hazel Taylor on props - should be very proud of what they've achieved here.
This may be the best farce we've seen from Rep since their 2007 production of Noises Off. It deserves to sell out, especially at Rep's ridiculously low ticket prices, so get your seats ASAP and enjoy.
* Word is that Jasan Savage is hospitalised and quite seriously unwell, and all possible positive thoughts and wishes are with him and his family for his speedy and complete recovery.