Alan Ayckbourn is a consummate constructor of entertaining (and sneakily instructive) dramas: setting up a situation, getting all its cogs turning, before dropping a spanner into the works then charting the chaos that follows. He has had plenty of practice. Welcome to the Family is his 88th play – an 89th, already written, is to have its premiere in Scarborough this autumn. What makes him a genius playwright, though, is his skill in crafting clever plots that also pack a powerful emotional punch.
Ayckbourn’s clockwork setups reflect the way his characters have allowed their lives to fall into dehumanising, mechanistic patterns. When chance, often in the form of another person, jolts their smooth running, things fall apart in ways that are, frequently, hilariously funny. The consequences of the ensuing catastrophe may be destructive or redemptive; characters have a choice. In the exposed muddle, their blundering struggles, recognisable and relatable, are often deeply affecting.
Here, there is comedy, but the emotional engagement is weak. An everyday situation – taking a partner to meet the parents – is given a twist. Josh’s parents are no longer alive. The opening act comes across as a parody of an old-fashioned drawing-room comedy, with the dialogue between Josh (Antony Eden) and Sara (Tanya-Loretta Dee) too obviously laying out the situation. We don’t get to feel how much they love one another and so cannot really fear the consequences if things go wrong (which they do).
As so often in Ayckbourn, comedy teeters on the brink of tragedy; there are hints of interesting ideas about identity and about our complicated relations with life and death. Fine acting from Eden and Dee, Caroline Langrishe and Terence Booth as the parents, with Bill Champion as Josh’s paternal uncle, as well as astute direction from Ayckbourn, do justice to an ingenious script. Ultimately, though, the plot offers a promise of something more than is realised.