Alan Ayckbourn Stephen Joseph Theatre Company The Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough 06 September 2018 to 06 October 2018
Astonishingly it’s number 82, and I have to confess to having missed much of Ayckbourn's more recent work – the master’s continuing output virtually passes the north west by (unlike in the glory days of the Manchester Library Theatre) – so it is a great nostalgic pleasure to find he is still very much on top of his game, writing ’em as well as directing ’em.
Better Off Dead concerns one Algy Waterbridge, an ageing, out-of-fashion thriller writer whose novels about DCI Tommy Middlebrass of the North Yorkshire Constabulary – a somewhat stereotyped misfit who practises policing in his own inimitable manner – haven’t been adapted for TV in quite some time.
Very much in the now-familiar tradition of odd couple cops, he is teamed with DS Gemma Price, a young female sergeant from darn sarf who finds the ways of the North, and Middlebrass in particular, just a little strange.
Grumpy Algy is in his summer house, writing novel number 33, while the fictional Tommy and his sidekick circle around the garden outside, figments of Algy’s imagination whom he clearly prefers to his real life associates and family.
He harangues his unfortunate PA, his wife is suffering from dementia, and an interview with a careless journalist – the funniest extended riff in the play – results in a very unfortunate mix-up.
To complicate matters further, his publisher arrives by helicopter (good sound effect, but no Miss Saigon on-stage landing) for a little chat about his future prospects.
Immaculately directed on a set of a circular central cutaway pagoda surrounded by well-trodden grass (long-time designer collaborator Michael Holt), lit convincingly (by long-time collaborator Jason Taylor) it has a cast of long-time collaborator actors.
Christopher Godwin as Algy leads the charge in totally convincing manner, while Russell Dixon prowls and plods around the periphery as the characterful detective. Leigh Symonds’ turn as the confused journo is a hoot, and Eileen Battye is charmingly confused as wife Jessica.
There are undoubtedly echoes of the author’s own life in there somewhere, but best not to puzzle over those for too long, better to just sit back and laugh. It does veer in a more serious direction towards the conclusion, as Jessica’s dementia becomes more central and the plotting overall becomes a little more dense, taking rather too long to play out. But that’s about the only negative thought I’ve got about an otherwise highly enjoyable experience.