Every so often we get to see an arresting television interview with a young military hero. They are usually diffident, fresh-faced men, modestly paying down their role in whatever the heroism happened to be. “I did what anyone would have done.” “We were all in it together.” We mere viewers are captivated. The story sticks in your mind.
This, I imagine, is exactly what happened to Alan Ayckbourn. But instead of carrying on with the ironing, he’s written a play about it; which opens with Murray in uniform on a TV studio couch calmly telling his story. By his side, however, is his exotic young bride, plucked from the war zone (somewhere in Eastern Europe perhaps) and brought home to Padworth, the Yorkshire town Murray left 17 years ago.
Ayckbourn’s moment of genius in “Hero’s Welcome” is to have newly-wed Baba … full name Mad-rab-aba-cas-ca-buna…still learning English. He’s very cleverly paced the play so that as her language improves, so the story escalates. His other masterful device is to have her trying to improve her vocabulary out loud. Each new word becomes a portent of what is about to happen. Baby-sitting for neighbours, she lies on the sofa mouthing “om-in-nous” and “pred-a-tor. So when the husband comes home early, the scene is set.
All of which proves without a doubt that 76-year-old Sir Alan is as sharp as ever. Play number 79 is one of his best…an excellent blend of remarkably youthful writing and vast life experience.
It is lurking and broody, playful and poignant, and down right gripping. The laughs are largely incidental. What starts out as a comedy of embarrassment deepens into the mire of small town deceitfulness. Nasty things have happened and Ayckbourn prises them out, one by one.
There are old tricks amongst his new. The stage is divided into three separate lounges so we can see inside the homes of all six characters. The seventh is required for the denouement. But Ayckbourn can’t have an actor sitting around all night just for the finale. So when Kara, the wife of Murray’s old mate, explains that her 17-year-old daughter looks a lot like her, again we know we are being played with. And he’s playing with names too. The old family-run hotel Murray plans to restore is called ‘The Bird of Prey’; and we wait to discover just which ‘bird’ has been preyed upon within its walls; poor girl.
The characters are classic Ayckbourn types…blustering and blubbering, ribald and revengeful, fallible and funny, and at least 25% larger than life. The ensemble playing is immaculate and newly graduated Terenia Edwards is pure magic as Baba… bouncing playfully around the stage as she embarks upon her huge journey from gauche foreign bride to a worldly wise woman of action.
The Ayckbourn company veteran Richard Stacey plays her heroic husband as a hugely caring man, keen to make amends for his past local cowardice. It’s a lovely, calm and measured performance amidst the chaotic eccentricities of his compatriots. And Ayckbourn certainly makes the most of them.
For example, the girl who Murray left standing at the alter is now Mayor, married to an older man with an extensive train set; which is a source of scorn until we learn why he’s still got it. And his best mate Brad is in a loveless marriage with Kara, who he met in intriguingly insalubrious circumstances.
Each teasing vignette illuminates the whole…and the whole comes highly recommended. Go to the New Vic and see it. I’m sure you’d be made very welcome.
“Hero’s Welcome” is in repertoire at the New Vic with Ayckbourn’s 1974 play “Confusions”
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Photo : Tony Batholomew