“I never married because there was no need. I have three pets at home, which answer the same purpose as a husband. I have a dog that growls every morning, a parrot which swears all afternoon and a cat that comes home late at night” – Marie Corelli.
Ever imagined how you would handle your partner’s daily routine? What would you do differently? Joe Harmston’s production of If I Were You at The Richmond Theatre offers characters Jill and Mal Rodale the chance to slip into each others shoes (and bodies). In the case of this married couple it seems that the best way to get something taken care of ii really to do it themselves.
If there is one thing that watching Ayckbourn plays has taught me, it’s that he has an astounding ability to capture the dialogue of the (usually disgruntled) marital couple. The witty banter between man and wife in a Kingston production of Bedroom Farce earlier this year had me genuinely laughing out loud, and If I Were You does anything but break that trend. The play demonstrates Ayckbourn’s attention to the tiny details that tell so very much about a marriage – particularly one in difficulty. With their portrayal of Mal and Jill, Liza Goddard and Jack Ellis do well to take on Ayckbourn’s dialogue with their own characterisations and capture the middle-aged marriage in which love has dissolved and only resentment remains. Goddard floats about the stage like a ghost – the woman appears so drained and resigned to her husband’s lack of respect it’s a wonder she can even lift the Dyson – whilst Ellis’ pig-headed alpha-male persona had me actually sneering with distaste in the shadows of the stalls.
After twenty minutes however I’d sussed that Mal is as unsupportive as a father as he is husband in his bullying of son Sam (DAVID OSMOND), and that Dean had a vicious streak that would land him smack bang at the top of any father’s black list for potential son-in-laws. After an hour then, I was feeling the itch of interval-longing.
I wouldn’t necessarily though blame my first-act restlessness on this production. The act of body swapping provides any play with a large scope of comic possibility, and If I Were You isn’t the only example of such techniques in Ayckbourn’s writing (both Body Language and The Jollies also use swapping as a theatrical tool). However, use of such an extreme and surreal device means that there is little scope for any real development of story: the climatic moment where Jill Rodale (LIZA GOBBARD) and Mal Rodale (JACK ELLIS) switch bodies doesn’t come until the very end of the first act. Peppering the first half with suggestions into Mal’s infidelity and the relationship between Chrissie (LAUREN DRUMMOND) and Dean (AYDEN CALLAGHAN), Ayckbourn’s attempts to pad out his character’s backgrounds are apparent, but it isn’t until the second act that we really feel in full swing.
Suddenly we’re catapulted (rather inexplicably) into a world of the absurd and the hilarious. Mal becomes Jill and Jill becomes Mal. Both must function in a way that suggests nothing untoward – but giving that the couple have been merely co-existing, it makes it particularly difficult for the two to perform a Parent Trap-style switch. Cue comic opportunities. Goddard drops a few octaves and becomes her gruff and grunting husband, whilst Ellis becomes an amusing mixture of high pitched cooing and enthusiastic hand gesticulations in an attempt to seem feminine – which only emphasises his masculinity and becomes all the more entertaining to watch. Kudos go to Osmond, Drummond and Callaghan, as their reactions for the strange goings-on only help to emphasise the farcical element of Ayckbourn’s play: the more bemused their characters become at the apparent personality shifts of Mal and Jill, the more fun scenes involving the workplace or mother/daughter bonding become.
Ultimately however, and in true Ayckbourn fashion, it takes the body switch for Mal to literally gain a new perspective on his unpleasant ways and learn to appreciate his family a little more. In growing a pair, Jill finally plucks up the courage to call her husbands bluff and take action on his cheating ways.
After a couple of very minor first-night wobbles, the cast provided an evening of theatre that induced effortless laughter from their audience. David Osmond is particularly fun as the young Sam Rodale: the tortured artistic child belittled by his father for his keen interest in “that Shakespeare”. Osmond manages to reach a rather difficult-to-judge balance of Harry Enfield’s Kevin, an irritatingly wimpy stereotype of “the artsy young boy” and someone who, with his moral conviction, is actually quite endearing. His earnest recital of Francis Flute’s monologue from A Midsummer Night’s Dream provides a nice moment: Sam’s father is finally able to appreciate his love of the arts – even if it be under the disguise of his mothers form – and this particular scene received its very own applause.
As a tried and tested crowd-pleaser, Harmston and his actors made The Richmond Theatre an enjoyable Bank Holiday evening experience. Ground breaking theatre? Of course not – and it would be a little ridiculous to expect such. Easy, unforced and enjoyable? Yes: providing audience members can be a little patient with the first half.
If I Were You is playing at the Richmond Theatre until 5th July, book via their website.