Dramatists, from George S Kaufman and Moss Hart in Merrily We Roll Along to Harold Pinter in Betrayal, have long been experimenting with reverse chronology. But the ever-inventive Alan Ayckbourn gives it a new spin in his joyous 83rd play by reminding us that a situation becomes even funnier or sadder if we have a shrewd idea in advance of what is going to happen.
Ayckbourn, who turned 80 in April, tracks back in time to look at four birthdays in the same family over four decades. He starts with the 80th of a crusty former coach driver, Micky, who along with his wife Meg, awaits the arrival of their son, Adrian, and his latest girlfriend, Grace.
Unfortunately Micky sees it as his moral duty to warn the churchgoing Grace that the mild-mannered Adrian is a Jekyll and Hyde whose relationships have been ruined by his inordinate sexual demands. Over the next three scenes, leading back to Adrian as a teenager, we discover the devastating falsity of that accusation.
One of Ayckbourn’s many gifts is to make brilliant use of off-stage action and characters: we don’t need to see the drunken debauchery at Meg’s 60th party, or meet her black-sheep brother, to get a vivid picture of both. Ayckbourn also plays cleverly on audience foreknowledge. By the time we get to Adrian’s 30th birthday party we know the destination, even if the route takes us by surprise.
As always, Ayckbourn writes generously for actors. The most versatile is Naomi Petersen, who plays four different women in Adrian’s sheltered life, ranging from a bold sex worker to a shy church-mouse, with detailed skill rather than revue-sketch shorthand.
Russell Dixon, an Ayckbourn veteran, is on rich form as the morose Micky – especially when, as an octogenarian, he reacts indignantly to Meg’s polite inquiry of “Still dry?” Jamie Baughan brings out the pathos of the underachieving Adrian and Jemma Churchill suggests his mum is the only woman who ever understands him. Alternately wry and raucous, the play shows the 80-year-old Ayckbourn still knows how to make the best use of time.
At the Stephen Joseph theatre, Scarborough, until 5 October.