A new play by Alan Ayckbourn is always a noteworthy event and Private Fears in Public Places is certainly no exception. Currently playing at Richmonds Orange Tree Theatre, this is, amazingly, his 67th play and an ideal production for such a unique and wonderful space.
The play showcases the lives of six individuals and the effect they have upon each other, the actors themselves bringing light and shade to characters that often appear quiet and unassuming or simply pathetic. Dan (Paul Thornley)has been thrown out of the army and now spends his days getting drunk in a hotel bar in the West End; Thornley portrays Dan as a sympathetic, bumbling man whom the audience cannot help but like and still feel no guilt about laughing at. Ambrose (Adrian McLoughlin) is Dan’s barman, a man of quiet wisdom whose life outside the bar is heartbreaking but who was once happy. Nicola (Melanie Gutteridge) plays Dan’s girlfriend who spends much of the play looking at flats despite the fact that their relationship is crumbling. Stewart (Paul Kemp) is Nicola’s estate agent, who harbours a passion for his secretary Charlotte, and lives, with his sister Imogen (Sarah Moyle) who, in turn, has a secret life away from her brother and often goes on blind dates. Finally, there is Charlotte (Alexandra Mathie) a devout Christian who fights temptation and the devil in funny and unexpected ways. The way Mathie plays Charlotte, she at first appears to be a quiet mouse of a woman, but she has a mischievous twinkle in her eye which soon makes the audience suspicious about her character and motives.
The title of this play is very apt, for these people have a solitary quality even in the most crowded of places. There is very little action; there is instead a finely drawn series of character studies that are, at times, achingly funny. The performances are pitch perfect and the audience is tugged in every directions by the skilful interweaving of storylines and the gradual revelation of the characters true personalities. Though the tone of much of the play is quite melancholy, some of the action is incredibly funny, particularly the sequence where the bumbling Dan and the repressed Imogen loosen up and get drunk, revealing, to both the audience and themselves, a very different side to their characters. The scene where Charlotte finally reveals her secret also made the entire audience hoot with laughter.
This play fits perfectly into the compact, circular space at the Orange Tree; and it is that rare production which, if seen twice, would result in a completely different audience experience. The sets while simple are rather cluttered and this somehow adds to the sense of the characters isolation.
Running at 1 hour and 50 minutes without an interval, the play though riveting may prove a bit much for some, but really its a minor complaint: this is a fantastic production, with a very fine cast.