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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Harold Pinter


  Ph: Catherine Ashmore

Alan Ayckbourn's darkening comedy from 1984, A Chorus of Disapproval, is a theatrical tease. It begins with a finale from someone else’s play. In the opening scene of director Trevor Nunn’s West End revival, we watch a bevy of 18th-century harlots jigging round the actor Nigel Harman. He’s playing a grinning rascal who has escaped the hangman’s noose. Everyone celebrates in song, with a curtain call to follow, as if our evening is over already.

Then, however, we get to see the post-show reality, backstage. The previous musical number was from John Gay's Beggar's Opera, and, we glean, it was being performed by a small-town, amateur opera group. Harman is a local singleton called Guy. He was playing the lothario Macheath, but, as he changes out of his periwig and frock coat, he is wretchedly cold-shouldered by the rest of the troupe.

Cue an extended, explanatory flashback, taking us through Guy’s story from the day he was first auditioned by the group’s artistic director, Rob Brydon's matey but blithely insensitive, motor-mouthed Dafydd.

Harman's Guy seems long-suffering and pleasantly shy as other company members bossily give him bad advice or flirt shamelessly with him. However, in parallel with his promotion from cameo role to leading man in the Beggar’s Opera rehearsals, he begins to reveal a caddish side, becoming embroiled with more than one married woman.

Ayckbourn has been enjoying a buoyant comeback in London of late, notably with The Norman Conquests at the Old Vic and Absent Friends, just recently, at the Harold Pinter Theatre itself. Unfortunately, A Chorus of Disapproval lets the side down. Ayckbourn is famously prolific and this script was written in a rush. Narratively, it’s far from his most ingenious work, with a scrappy subplot about land-purchasing. Some of his art-life parallels lack structural sophistication, too, with Gay's songs about womanizing seemingly just tossed in between the scenes of post-60s permissiveness. Michael Frayn’s Noises Off plays far cleverer and funnier games, switching between backstage and onstage scenes.

I suspect a better production could make A Chorus of Disapproval seem more worthy of applause. On press night, though, Nunn’s cast was oddly hit and miss, as if some scenes had not been carefully calibrated. 

Harman's Guy (prematurely widowed) and Ashley Jensen’s Hannah (Dafydd's uncherished wife) are outstandingly poignant when they fall in love at first sight, quietly but with a sweet spontaneous directness. Still, Harman needs to be a more unsettling dark horse, introduce additional glimmers of doubts about his innocence, pick up on the hints that his character has a voracious side. His claim that he also “loves” Daisy Beaumont’s slutty Fay seems hard to believe at it stands. Still, she steers, skillfully, just clear of caricature, and Brydon is very good, naturalistically chatty with sharp comic timing.

What a pity that several other cast members are way below par. So much so that it’s hard to differentiate between their own unpolished acting and those scenes when – rehearsing Gay’s romp – they’re meant to be sending up am-dram woodenness.


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