Restoration comedy for today

A Trip to Scarborough, Alan Ayckbourn, Arts Theatre, Cambridge until Saturday March 8

Ivan Howlett

A Trip to Scarborough, Alan Ayckbourn, Arts Theatre, Cambridge until Saturday March 8

Centuries of trying to pull off scams, with deception, betrayal and backstabbing lurking at every corner of history.

It's no surprise that with Alan Ayckbourn it's all played out and carefully monitored in the lobby of the Royal Hotel at his beloved Scarborough. It's large cast stuff, intricate and non-stop with 32 characters played by fewer than half that number and a three-piece band led by Dennis King. But, goodness me, you need to keep your wits about you.


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No playwright has derived more creative and spiritual energy from a place than Alan Ayckbourn has from Scarborough. At his most prolific period in the seventies, his plays were streaming down to be London hits as if they were literally hot off the press. Seventy plays he's written; half have been put on in the West End and all but four have started out at the Stephen Joseph Theatre where Ayckbourn has been the Artistic Director since 1971.

I remember in the eighties piloting an audience-based radio show in the theatre. Ayckbourn, of course, was on hand to make sure that we had everything we wanted, and then for good measure he popped up in the audience to ask the most intelligent question heard that night. We saw at first-hand the level of Ayckbourn's s commitment to Scarborough, the first of the British seaside resorts.

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Ayckbourn's ability to manipulate the mechanics of time and place has made him very much the theatre's master craftsman. So what he's done here is, tongue-in-cheek, to follow in a line of adaptations from Colley Cibber through John Vanbrugh's Restoration comedy The Relapse, and then Richard Brinsley Sheridan's cleaned up version from a century later, and which first used the title A Trip to Scarborough.

Using some of the same themes, Ayckbourn has added two more time frames. One is wartime England when black marketeers and the odd cheating Pay Corps Army officer plotted and thrived while pilots went missing. The third time is now - the plotline being the efforts of an oily art dealer who tries to get his hands on the Sheridan manuscript.

It's a whirl through conniving history - in Scarborough - with fops and penniless bucks, the wartime military and the do-a-quick-deal mob of today , cleverly pulled together by the hotel lobby team.

If that isn't enough, Ayckbourn himself directs this ensemble show at an absolute cracking pace.

Ivan Howlett

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