Anna Francolini, Emily Pithon, Michael Simpkins, Matthew Cottle, Stephen Beckett, Adrian McLoughlin
The intimate Orange Tree, London’s only permanent theatre in-the-round, offers the ideal setting for Alan Ayckbourn’s revival of his 1980 play Taking Steps.
Typically of Ayckbourn, the play uses an ingenious staging device in which three floors of a decrepit English country house are represented on a single level; the armchairs of the living room, the satin-covered bed in the master bedroom and the narrow camp-bed in the garret are shown together, with the cast wittily ascending and descending the ‘staircase’ with exaggerated steps and the occasional loss of balance.
Also typically of Ayckbourn, the play – though at a cursory glance little more than a traditional English farce – neatly skewers the pretentions and preoccupations of the middle classes, and offers moments of deeply empathetic insight into its characters’ predicaments.
Lizzie, a frustrated artiste (“Did I ever tell you,” she says at least once every ten minutes, “That I am a dancer?”), tries to break free from the pompous Roland after a bare three months of marriage. The prospect of life with a man who idolises her so much that she must leave the room to scratch is not appealing; nor is the damp-spotted bow-ceilinged house he’s in the process of buying from the unscrupulous Bainbridge. Unable to bring herself to break with him in person, she leaves a note propped, in the time-honoured fashion, upon her dressing table. The note is merely the first of a series of comic devices that are fairly well-worn, but all the more effective for it.
The cast display effortless coming timing, deftly making use of Aycbourne’s witty script. The skill of the writing is almost breathtaking, with nearly every line discreetly setting up a gag in a later scene. As the wealthy vulgarian Roland, Michael Simpkins is first gleefully detestable, before indulging in a breakdown that’s both hilarious and unexpectedly touching. Matthew Cottle as tongue-tied solicitor Tristram is a perfect wide-eyed innocent, whose moral virtues are rewarded with a pair of amorous intrigues, and as Lizzie’s brother Mark, Stephen Beckett is the archetypical upper-class twit, all benevolent stupidity and absurd vowels.
Rarely have I seen an audience so united in their enjoyment of a play; it is blissfully funny, and there’s something in the very familiarity of this style of comedy that is uniquely entertaining. After a long cold winter, in which it has been almost inconceivable that spring would come, it’s comforting to find that a beslippered man of a certain age being violently folded up within a camp-bed is always going to be funny.