It is customary to receive presents on the occasion of a birthday – in a reversal of the tradition Alan Ayckbourn, who was 80 earlier this year – has sent his fans a gift.
It comes in the form of his 83rd play Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present – a farce about sex or the lack of it.
The story, too, is told in reverse. It starts with Mickey’s 80th birthday and ends with his daughter’s 18th – with, in between, his wife Meg’s 60th celebrations, his son Adrian’s 30th and daughter Sonia’s 18th.
The audience gets to understand how the people they meet in the beginning have been shaped, shamed, formed and fated.
It is Adrian’s story and, as in A Brief History of Women, how he is affected and affects the women in his life – mum, sister, wife and lovers.
Adrian is a stone in the sand, brushed and bruised by the tides that are the women he encounters.
He is an unremarkable man, a man who encounters remarkable women. Without understanding why, some of the women he delights and others he disappoints.
His parents think he is a lothario of suburbia – the audience and his girlfriends either know or discover nothing could be further from the truth.
The cast of four act in perfect harmony – their characterisations and timing spot on.
Russell Dixon is dad Mickey – a down-to-earth coach driver who is proud of his son’s prowess and reputation as the Superman of sex.
His portrayal of the 80-year-old Mickey – cantankerous in spirit but frail in body – is moving and funny.
Jemma Churchill plays Adrian’s mum Meg. She, too, is given her moment to steal the scene and takes it with both hands.
Naomi Petersen plays all the women in Adrian’s life – from a repressed 45-year-old church-goer to a free-spirited prostitute – and is a delight in all her guises.
But step forward the new darling of the Stephen Joseph – Jamie Baughan as Adrian.
Baughan creates the kind of man every woman wants to meet and keep.
He is tender, loving, confused, naive, gentle, good-hearted, thoughtful and, without realising it, sexy.
Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present is packed full of memorable characters, one-liners, fun and poignancy.
It is brilliantly-observed, perfectly paced, full of pathos and packed with laughs.
To highlight and reveal the gags – some visual, others verbal – would be to strip aways the surprises which make any birthday perfect.
Safe to say the play is laugh-out-loud funny and poignant in equal measure. The audience go from hysterical laughter to heart-break in the blink of a tear-filled eye.
The farce is perfectly balanced with Ayckbourn as director and author in control – taking things to the edge of the abyss and pulling them back before the action plunges into chaos.
This is a farce in the vein of No Sex Please We’re British but with A-levels – people come into rooms at inconvenient moments, clothes are shed and misconceptions abound. It is saucy yet sophisticated – a seaside postcard with the dialogue bubbles written by Ayckbourn.
It is, though, never smutty or crude.
A ticket to Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present would make a perfect gift for any occasion – treat someone today.
Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present runs in repertory with a revival of Ayckbourn’s Season’s Greetings until Saturday October 5.
Tickets: 01723 370541 and online at www.sjt.uk.com