Time Of My Life: World Premiere Reviews
Separate Tables At The Ayckbourn Trattoria (by Jeremy Kingston)
"When Alan Ayckbourn gives a play a jolly title, and starts off by showing his characters having a great time together - in this case sitting round a table in an Italian restaurant gabbling away 19 to the dozen - be sure that disaster lies no farther than a brandy glass away. The three women clamber out of the wreckage and advance to happier things; the men, poor saps, in their different ways, go under and stay there.
Resourceful artificer that he is, Ayckbourn finds yet another new way to unfold his drama. All the scenes are set in the restaurant, where Terence Booth plays the amiable owner and also four of his variously talented waiters. Gerry Stratton has arranged a family party to celebrate his wife's 54th birthday; roving son Glyn (Richard Garnett) has patched up his failing marriage with Stephanie to please his parents, and home-boy Adam has brought along his new girl, Maureen.
Laura, the mother, dislikes her on sight, but then she thinks little of gushy Stephanie either, or her son Glyn, for that matter. Underneath her manner, according to Gerry, she is a very vulnerable person. Not so as you'd notice.
After the young couples depart, lovingly or furiously, they re-appear at the two other tables; Glyn and Stephanie meeting there for a succession of lunches that takes their story forward over the next couple of years; Adam and Maureen for a reverse succession of meals that extends back to their first, absurdly accidental, encounter.
Meanwhile, at the main table, a sinister blue liqueur has loosened the restraints imposed by 30 years of marriage, and the savagely destructive Laura is shown to have been, yes, once upon a time, very vulnerable.
So on the three areas of the stage time is jumping forward, jumping backward and inching along in keeping with clock time, unpicking three different romances. Pain, the constant at the Glyn-Stephanie table, unexpectedly shifts from one to the other so that Karen Drury in successive scenes is catatonic with grief, svelte in new-found purpose and (in a final scene back at the party) cringingly effusive once again. Ayckbourn is even cleverer than usual in finding the line that pin-points what has been developing elsewhere.
Stephen Mapes's sweetly ineffectual Adam is evidently up to satisfying the erotic demands of his no-nonsense Maureen, and their scenes are the funniest, with Sophie Heyman excellent in a peach of a part.
The play springs several surprises. After Russell Dixon's Gerry has exhausted himself shouting in a whisper, his reverie with Colette O'Neil's suddenly tender Laura becomes that rarity in Ayckbourn, a love scene. Ayckbourn himself directs: the main characters are nearly always sitting, which causes masking, but the pace and twists of mood are firmly controlled. What occurs to his characters is really very ordinary, but his great gift lies in making ordinary attitudes collide, thus causing the true to be funny and invigorating to witness."
(The Times, 24 April 1992)
Time Of My Life
"The fact is that A Jovial Grew is a pretty middling play to begin with. Brome and Jeffreys could both have taken a leaf out of Alan Ayckbourn's book: Ayckbourn knows that if a playwright, especially a comic playwright, patronises either his audience or his characters he's dead. His new play, Time of My Life (Stephen Joseph, Scarborough), is both a birthday party and a wake. The setting, in the Liverpool area I would guess, is a fancy restaurant of vaguely Turco-Ugrian descent, with twanging music and unpronounceable dishes, and run by five variously mad and weird men, all of whom are niftily played by Terrance Booth. (As with the Italian conmen in A Small Family Business, foreigners in Ayckbourn are interchangeable.) Here Gerry Stratton, a builder (Russell Dixon), and his wife Laura (Colette O'Neil) are celebrating her 54th birthday. Also present: their elder son, smug, shifty workaholic Glyn, and his smart wife (Richard Garnett, Karen Drury), and their younger son, nice, callow Adam, and his punkish girlfriend (Stephen Mapes, Sophie Heyman).
With this play Ayckbourn, too, is once again in the construction business. As the party breaks up, the action splits and moves both backwards and forwards. At one table you follow Adam's relationship to its bizarre beginning; at another, Glyn's marriage to its predictable end. In the middle, Gerry and Laura are making their own discoveries, mostly unwelcome ones. In the background, you can hear the still, sad music of recession-ridden humanity: old-established shops are closing down and the cash flow isn't what it should be.
As usual with Ayckbourn, the play sounds schematic and contrived, but as usual, it is neither. Time of My Life displays his old skills of orchestrating trivialities and making them sound both grotesque and important. If Pinter's plays are about the weasel under the cocktail cabinet, Ayckbourn's are about the rat behind the chintz. Marriages are hunting grounds where everyone is both predator and victim. Maturity means finding out who people really are; survival consists in confidence, resilience, and knowing when to move on. Everyone is to blame, which means that no one really is. Tragedy and comedy are often the same in this respect; and the seven actors, all playing flawlessly, make sure that you leave the theatre feeling neither smug nor indifferent."
(Sunday Times, 26 April 1992)
Time Of My Life (by David Murray)
"Alan Ayckbourn's new play is a discouraged comedy for sextet, or more precisely (like a well-known piece by the composer Elliott Carter) for three semi-detached duos. Those are the senior Strattons, Gerry and Laura; their smooth-talking, unreliable son Glyn and his off-and-on wife Stephanie; and the arty younger son Adam with his innocently punkish girl Maureen. There are also some wild cards, a restaurateur and four of his waiters (all played by a single actor), for everything happens in the Strattons' favourite local restaurant.
The central occasion, the core of the play, is Laura's 54th birthday party. In a sense, the play goes nowhere; instead it expands in ripples fore and aft, but always returning to its base. Ayckbourn likes to play formal games, and Time of My Life is highly regimented. Not only do all its events take place at three different tables in that restaurant, but the Janus-faced chronology - more complicated than Sondheim's in Merrily We Roll Along - is strictly apportioned.
Adam and Maureen are traced backwards from the party through several dates to their first accidental meeting; Glyn and Stephanie's uneasy lunches run forward, through Laura's widowhood, to their inevitable split. Laura and Gerry are seen only in "real time", in successive moments of the party - though we glimpse the beginning of that only at the end.
The writing leaves room for plenty of laughs (the Scarborough audience was loyally forthcoming), and the cast secures them with sharp, sympathetic playing. Yet there are scarcely any frank gags, nor anything like farcical mechanics - deceptions, disguises, crucial misunderstandings - until the first (final) encounter of the youngest pair, by which time a dash of farce is welcome: the dying fall of the play has been somewhat protracted.
Heretofore, Ayckbourn's canny naturalism has usually taken off from some bizarre or frenetic spring in the plot. This time everything is as Northern-ordinary as can be, including the relevant adulterous bits, and such little revelations as crop up surprise only the characters, not the audience. But that is the point: to detached observers, there is never much doubt about the paths these lives are taking. The "time of your life", by the way, is expressly identified as the time when you were happiest but didn't know it. Whether or not that is a sentimental premise, it is a barbed one for comedy. We watch the characters gently succumbing to wounds they might have recognised but didn't: funnier for us than for them, of course, but almost as painful too.
Yet there is also a pervasive sense that each of them does know pretty well what he or she is doing, and what the others make of that as if they were willing their own deserts while preferring not to admit it. Not the first time in Ayckbourn's work that this fatalistic sub-text has surfaced: it is what makes him something more than a comic playwright.
Richard Garnett's Glyn boasts almost as much well-lubricated charm and confidence as he thinks he has, and Stephen Mapes is the picture of flustered good intentions. Colette O'Neill's Laura is nicely ambiguous between being toughly sensible and just brutally tough, and Sophie Heyman brings more touching subtleties to poor Maureen than one would think the role permitted. Terence Booth has a wonderful time with his Mediterranean restaurant-personnel, all neatly differentiated and cleverly employed in Ayckbourn's plot, too, not mere local colour.
The equally put-upon Gerry and Stephanie seemed to be in safe hands with Russell Dixon and Karen Drury; but from seat no. D10, more often than not I saw only the backs of their heads. With a play in which everyone is usually facing someone else across a fixed table, there are bound to be geographical problems in a theatre-in-the-round like the Stephen Joseph."
(Financial Times, 23 April 1992)
Time's Three Card Trick (by Gerry Dempsey)
"Unstoppable Alan Ayckbourn has turned time lord for his latest dispatch from the domestic front.
As always, he is concerned with the undeclared hostilities, muted but nonetheless savage, within an outwardly placid English family.
For his 44th major stage work Ayckbourn shuffles not just his characters - he always does that - but the calendar and the clock. "I explore the family's lives, past, present and future, in a three-way journey through time," he says.
So the play hops across three time zones - yesterday, today and tomorrow - though not in that order, starting with a family birthday party in a favourite restaurant. The episodes may be here today and gone yesterday but the action is played out around, between and across three restaurant tables magnificently presided over by Terence Booth as restaurateur and as four superbly contrasted comic waiters.
The rejection of a conventional time scale puts the audience on a level with the gods. We know better than the characters what's going to happen next - a kind of inverted whodunit - although, until the author tells us, we may not know what went before.
Ayckbourn's calculated leaks, the dispensing of hindsight and foresight, intensifies the drama. The play is sharper because we can see the shadows closing. It is a cunning and cruel format. Yet the characters are so finely etched, the dialogue so authentic, the situation so wildly developed that the piece brims with laughter.
Colette O'Neil presides over the family's disintegration, as a mother-in-law monstrous enough to restore your faith in seaside postcards. Russell Dixon approaches tragedy as her self-destructive spouse.
Karen Drury is all victim as a constantly wronged daughter-in-law and Richard Garnett is oily and convincing as her odious husband.
The solitary outsider, Sophie Heyman is a brave rough-as-a-brush punk hairdresser - a performance that would shine as a comic gem in any context."
(Daily Express, 2 June 1992)
Time Of My Life (by Robin Thornber)
"Actors nearly always get a meal in Alan Ayckbourn's plays. I had often wondered if this was just a dramatic device for bringing people together or a subtler way of ensuring that his company in Scarborough doesn't starve.
The entire action of this new comedy - his 44th play - takes place in a restaurant, which should see them through the summer season (except that it's mostly prop food, but brilliantly effected).
Calvinu's is a nebulously Mediterranean ethnic place with its own book matches and a string of surly-to-effusive waiters (all five played by Terence Booth) where the Strattons have courted and held their family occasions for 30-odd years.
The father (Russell Dixon) is a builder turned developer who's become pretty big; the action opens on his wife's birthday party, with a babble of nervous chatter as the younger son introduces his new girl, an outrageously punk hairdresser.
Scenes then spin both back and forwards in time as we unravel idealistic young Adam's fling with the sexy hairdo and his elder brother Glyn's crumbling executive marriage to a nice little wifey, as well as their parents' relationship.
The point of this Priestley-esque time warping is that we don't, as the father announces, recognise those moments that come nearest to happiness as they happen - these are the good old days. But we also see how the mother (Colette O'Neil) unconsciously destroys those around her through self-centredness.
Time Of My Life isn't Ayckbourn's strongest play; it's more of a decent, well-wrought amusement. But it is mouth-wateringly staged in his own production, designed by Roger Glossop with intricate aplomb. Look how those tabletops rotate to reveal immaculate place settings.
The programme really ought to credit whoever was responsible for the food and for Sophie Heyman's hairstyles. Strong playing, too, from Karen Drury as the abandoned wife, Richard Garnett and Stephen Mapes as the brothers.
Ayckbourn is currently the Cameron Mackintosh Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford and planning new theatres in both Scarborough and the Lake District. Maybe next year he'll surprise us. Or maybe these are the good old days."
(The Guardian, 24 April 1992)
Time Of My Life (by Alfred Hickling)
"The characters meeting up in the restaurant setting of Time Of My Life are hardly strangers to the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
Gerry is a middle-aged, middle-class business man, distinctly middle-brow with a distinctly expanding middle. His wife Laura is a sour-faced emotional dead-spot with an aversion to babies and a liking for dogs.
Attempting to apprise a glimmer of pleasure at this frosty matriarch's birthday feast are her two sons and their partners.
Glyn is a self-centred executive with an umbilical attachment to his vodaphone and a boomerang relationship with his beleaguered wife, to whom he eventually keeps coming back.
Adam is naive and determinedly sensitive, a drifter whose only artistic statement so far has been to hook up with his appalling girlfriend Maureen, a high-heeled hairdresser with a caustic tongue and the profile of a peculiarly dyed yucca plant.
Once again Ayckbourn uses this familiar assembly to explore his fascination with theatrical form.
From the central, opening episode of the birthday gathering various threads spiral off explaining the relationships of the three couples.
Each of these operate in their own individual time-schemes, allowing past, present and future to simultaneously interweave.
There are no untidy endings in an Ayckbourn play, and this obsession with tight constructions might seem detached and emotionless - the polish without the passion. But Ayckbourn turns structure into an emotional tool.
He has a classical sense of form, manipulating his structures to work for him, rather than struggling within their limits.
Time Of My Life is a bleak play about the failure to acknowledge happiness and the disintegration of relationships.
Its structure imparts it with a terrifying inexorability, driving you towards a painful ending that you hope never to reach because you know what it is already. Like Marlowe's Dr Faustus, these characters are damned from the very beginning."
(Yorkshire Post, 23 April 1992)
True Confessions (by Charles Hutchinson)
"How often do you enjoy an event at the time rather than on reflection or in anticipation? Alan Ayckbourn, the most prolific of playwrights, says he finds it difficult to savour his first nights, given the tensions, the expectations, of the occasion.
But last night, amid the usual national attention, his annual world premiere should leave him with happy memories. His 44th full length play has all the best Ayckbourn ingredients, something old (farce), something black and something new.
The scene is a restaurant, that most public of places for the most private, confessional moments: engagement proposals, birthday celebrations, pregnancy announcements, separation decisions.
The time is the present. That's not quite accurate. The setting is contemporary, the play an indictment of the worst values of the Thatcher years, but the time within this comic time play is past, present and future. In his latest flourish of stage trickery, Ayckbourn has a play travelling in three directions in his version of Back To The Future.
Everything happens around three tables in Calvinu's restaurant, long established and run by a venerable friend to the Strattans, an equally long established, northern business family, who always dine there.
Gerry Strattan (Russell Dixon) is the gruff father with a long-forgotten Teddy Boy past, a character just waiting to be played by Albert Finney. Wife Laura (Colette O'Neil) is the matriarch celebrating - if that is the right word - her 54th birthday with sons Glyn (Richard Garnett), a dull, soulless daddy's boy, and Adam (Stephen Mapes), a mummy's boy dilettante. With them are their respective partners, put upon housewife Stephanie (Karen Drury), and get-laid, get-lucky hairdresser Maureen (Sophie Heyman).
While parents stay in the present, Glyn and Stephanie travel into their fractured future, while Adam and Maureen travel back to a calamitous first meeting. The result is a confession-box play to enjoy both when seeing it and in hindsight."
(Yorkshire Evening Press, 22 April 1992)
All reviews are copyright of the respective publication.