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Watermill - Dreams from a Summer House

21st May to 5th July 2003.

This was from The Times.

Two stars

Once upon a waste of time...

When Alan Ayckbourn writes a musical something goes wrong. Jeeves, with Andrew Lloyd Webber, was a disaster that only became a modest success when they later rewrote it as By Jeeves.

Ayckbourn’s next, written with John Pattison and now revived on a stage too small to disclose what qualities it might possess, has had to wait 11 years to be produced here since its Scarborough premiere. His third, A Word from Our Sponsor (1995), also with Pattison — witty, funny and rooted in anger — has never been seen outside Chichester.

Unlike Jeeves, the plots for the other two shows contain supernatural characters — the Devil in A Word, Beauty and the Beast in Dreams — but Ayckbourn wants to give the humans a down-to-earth reason for their warbling. In A Word they are busy rehearsing a musical; in Dreams the visitors from Fairyland cannot understand the spoken word, and so the Leatherhead family whose garden party they invaded must sing to be understood.

You could call this a blatant contrivance or artfully Post-Modern, but it helps explain why Pattison’s music here is thin and uninteresting. The vague company manager and his twittering wife, their daughters and sons-in-law (one an ex-son-in-law), all must be shown doing their best in this novel situation, but a best that must not be all that good.

Robert (Michael Shaeffer), a commercial illustrator at work on a book of fairy tales, accidentally causes Beauty to break through from her world. He instantly falls in love with her, to the dismay of his former wife’s younger sister (Kelly Adams), whose wistful love song contains the show’s only genuine feeling.

In loving the unattractively smug Robert she is making a serious mistake, and Ayckbourn’s mistake is to create him this way. My sympathies were always with his bossy former wife Amanda (Annette McLaughlin), who will stand no nonsense from any male, whether Beast (Stewart C. Scudamore) or husband.

The folly of false expectations is what the characters must learn, but the show’s structure deprives them of the range of music and lyrics that would reveal their natures. So changes of heart look arbitrary; shifts of plot likewise. And when Giles Taylor, playing the abducted Amanda’s second husband, wails: “I have lost my wife. I’ve only just married her. She was brand new,” you can sense a character wishing he could be safely inside a proper Ayckbourn comedy, instead of having to help shore up Timothy Sheader’s revival of this flimsy artifice.


This was from The Independent.

Two stars

A little nightmare music

A programme note to Dreams from a Summer House says that the story of Beauty and the Beast, which has inspired the musical, symbolises adult sexual love - bestial through a child's eyes, but really complex, beautiful and productive.

Would somebody please tell Alan Ayckbourn? The characters in his plays babble uncontrollably, drink too much, scream, cry, even try to kill one another - anything but get down to business. If this playwright's sexual persona seems to have stopped at that of a shy 11-year-old, his creations suffer from sexual terror, manifested in stony repression or gibbering hysteria.

Though the title of this show recalls Ingmar Bergman's ravishingly sensual film Smiles of a Summer Night (adapted by Stephen Sondheim into A Little Night Music), the dreams are wet, in both senses, and the plot has far less logic than most sleepers' fantasies.

With her lawn covered by "practically the whole of Leatherhead, clamouring to be entertained," and a useless caterer going to pieces, Chrissie's troubles are increased when her daughter Amanda unexpectedly returns from her second honeymoon. The script makes her do that so she can confront her first husband, Robert, who is staying in the summerhouse at the bottom of the garden, where the fairies live. Robert, an illustrator of children's books, has been thinking really, really hard about the distressed damsel he has just painted, when, without even an abracadabra, she materialises (pursued by the Beast) and falls in love with him.

One would really have to be a dream girl to do that, for Robert, an embittered alcoholic, sounds off about "titless" women who "argue just for the pleasure of putting men down" and envisions his ideal woman as someone with a huge "chest" and a "sunny disposition" who "whispers, 'I love you, I love you, I love you,' for ever and ever."

No surprise, then, that Robert's lovemaking is that of an infantile drunk, embracing Beauty and sighing deeply. (They do, however, get up to something unspecified inside the little house, from which Beauty emerges, Doris Day-style, naked but for one of Robert's shirts.)

There's also Amanda's sister, a sullen teenager who calls women "tarts" if they wear make-up and whose antagonism toward Robert hides - from the cretinous and comatose - a pining heart.

Ayckbourn wrote the book and lyrics of this indigestible mishmash, and John Pattison the music, in 10 days in May 1992 in sunny Majorca. The rush to deadline - and perhaps a heavy intake of the local wine - could explain the confusing plot, dribbly music and sloppy, almost rhymeless lyrics. But, 10 years on, only colossal gall could account for foisting this thing once more on the public.

In Tim Sheader's rather draggy production, however, one's spirits are lifted by several appealing performers: Stewart Sculdamore as the rampaging but soft-hearted Beast, Giles Taylor as Amanda's nervous second husband, Nick Lumley as Chrissie's nice-old-stick husband, and, most of all, Elizabeth Counsell, who, as Chrissie, combines a good-sport personality with an airy sophistication that almost makes you believe this tosh is a clever comedy.


This was from The Guardian.

One star
Following a fine production of Marivaux's The Triumph of Love, the Watermill goes from the sublime to the ridiculous with this revival of a 10-year-old musical by Alan Ayckbourn and John Pattison - a gobsmacking triumph of inanity. I kept checking my programme, such was my increasing incredulity that Ayckbourn had really been involved in an evening that succeeds in being simultaneously weird and witless.

Inspired by the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, Dreams from a Summer House tells how the members of a dysfunctional family learn to love themselves and each other at midsummer in the gardens of their mock-Tudor des res in Leatherhead. This, however, is no suburban Midsummer Night's Dream; it is more of a nightmare, as Ayckbourn loses the plot entirely. An all-singing, no-talking fantasy Belle and beast invade the manicured Surrey lawns; a shrew is tamed by the discovery that all she really needs is a man who is a bit of a beast; and a selfish, drunken, misogynistic artist realises he has been blind to the beauty who really loves him. There were plenty of moments during this long evening when I yearned for the sophistication and pseudo-feminism of the Disney version of the tale.

In a programme note, the composer, John Pattison, recalls how the piece was written by himself and Ayckbourn during a 10-day holiday in Majorca. You would think a weekend break would have sufficed. This tosh gives the lie to the claim that Ayckbourn has strong feminist sympathies. He has the artist, Robert, explain his idea of a perfect world: one filled with "perfect girls with vast chests and unfailingly sunny dispositions. Girls who are there solely to whisper, 'I love you.'" Since this is delivered by a character with no discernible sense of humour, there is nothing ironic or satirical about it.

There can be no excuses for this evening - either from Ayckbourn, who can do so much better, or from the Watermill, which has forged a terrific reputation for music theatre. Even the acting and production are well below usual standards. Everyone involved should be thrown to the beast immediately.


This was from the Newbury Weekly News.

Round and round the garden

Dreams From a Summer House, at The Watermill, until July 5

The combination of Ayckbourn, family gatherings and a fairy tale is irresistible, especially when staged on a delightful set straight out of the Small Garden section at Chelsea and accompanied by musical director Paul Harvard's gently tinkling piano. Above the flower-bowery stage is a treehouse and Fairyland, which leads me to the story.

Lord knows guests aren't always easy and hostess Chrissie (Elizabeth Counsell) has her problems with elder daughter Amanda (Annette McLaughlin) returning home from honeymoon while ex-husband Robert (Michael Shaeffer) is encamped in the summer house.

Enter Beauty/Belle (Rosalie Craig) escaping from the Beast through a magical link with Robert, and Chrissie was pleased to have even her forgetful husband Grayson (Nick Lumley) for some support.

Discovering the only means of communicating with Belle was by singing, does she crack? No! She is English, by George! and her stiff upper lip barely quivers. Did I mention her younger daughter Mel (Kelly Adams) loves Robert, who loves Belle, who loves the Beast, who... Get the picture?

The scene in which Belle is introduced to the family is Ayckbourn wit at its glorious chaotic best, conducted with masterly timing by those experts of the understatement, Elizabeth Counsell and Nick Lumley as the keep-going-at-all-costs parents.

Following closely in the laughter stakes is Annette McLaughlin's shrieking virago at finding, on arriving with her diffident husband Sinclair (Giles Taylor), that Robert is in residence.

It only needs Beast, gloriously deep-voiced Stewart Scudamore, to arrive from Fairyland - and he does - capturing Amanda to bend her to his will. Ha!

Belle's longer communications by song occasionally meant that the momentum slowed, but Timothy Sheader's direction has every member of this cast at their slick excellent best, resulting in one of those plays which produces tears of helpless laughter.

What an evening, what fun.