To Cambridge for Basket Case , the new rom com by Nick Fisher. A kitchen-sink comedy of middle class folk. Guy and Miranda are divorced, not on very good terms and now the family dog is ill. Miranda feels obliged to call Guy to let him know. It is, after all, Guy's dog.
The audience was unsettled to find that studded between the jokes Nick Fisher had left his trade-mark needle-sharp observations. Fisher has a wicked ear for the cadences of the John Lewis catalogue classes - to whom he sells cookery books - and Liz Ashcroft, the designer, realizes their vision on the stage. Yes, we all laughed but there is an unnerving thread of criticism. For example, Fisher allows the characters to use bad language and graphic sexual imagery. The audience came out muttering about it being "close to the knuckle" but it's not so much the f-word which bothers them but the way the conflicted children - whom we never meet - have turned out.
All the performances are competent - which is no less than you'd expect - and Nigel Havers is allowed to give throat to the frustrations of the successful white male. Because he is expected to put bums on seats, Havers has to soften the character slightly, which is a pity because Fisher has written it with the capacity to be a glittering monster instead of chap who gets things muddled.
It's a hard call for director Robin Lefevre; make this play as hard-hitting as it could be and it would be up there with the flinty social realism gang and the critics would love it. Unfortunately, the audience would hate it and throw boots at the stage; they like the John Lewis adverts and aren't paying good money to see themselves reflected unflatteringly.
Besides, Nick Fisher is no stranger to middle-England fatwahs and doesn't want another one - he once wrote a sex education guide for teenagers which nearly got him lynched. So a compromise is reached; you can read it as a light comedy or much more if you care to look at the references, such a Miranda being surrounded by thirty grand's-worth of kitchen in which she bakes two quid's worth of muffins and even then doesn't have the blueberries or pecans to make the cakes properly. Beautiful set dressing btw - right down to this-year's must-have, fluted, jug-handled mixing bowl.
Guy's costume is the one formulated by Paul Weller a million years ago and worn by Jeremy Clarkson ever since; denims and suit jacket with tassel loafers. He also delivers trade-mark motor-mouth tirades. Yes, Guy is popular and successful but if I were Jeremy Clarkson I'd be squirming in my seat; of course it isn't Clarkson, but as a portrait of a man skidding towards being old enough to be a grandad whilst having made a lot of money but arsed-up in key areas of life.....well, any resemblance is purely coincidental.
Although old smoothie-chops is there to provide male glamour, the one we've all really come to see is Graham Seed, late of Lower Loxley Hall in the county of Borsetshire. Wisely, Fisher doesn't move Seed, playing Martin the vet, too far from the audience's expectations and puts in a couple of pointed in-jokes. Fresh from being the nicest man in the world to be pushed off a stately home roof, he's now the nicest vet in the world who has to deal with the tantrums of the clients while being obviously much more attuned to the patients.
Although we are explicitly supposed to see Martin as in love with Miranda from a distance, this line isn't picked up and Martin is left with a hint of sexual ambiguity, an awkwardness. Because the play doesn't have much in the way of a plot - it's more of a character study - the supporting characters are there for contrast and to elaborate themes rather than do anything which twists the story round. He is therefore entrusted with illuminating what Fisher really wanted to portray; the enduring relationship of people and animals.
It turns out that there was a reason why Seed was able to make a clottish toff a favourite character for thirty years; He Can Act. Here he slides down the social scale a little, cautiously knocking some of the patrician accent off his most famous role but he's absolutely serious that there will be a vet on that stage. Seed's show reel gives a respectable selection from a certain type of character actor but it can't show what has happened to him in the past year; there is the potential for greater depth and conviction just waiting for a role.
Seed could play Richard III now and project all that rage, frustration and attraction which the historical character undoubtedly had - along with the ruthless determination to wear a crown. As the 2-i-c to Edward IV, Richard had spent a lifetime playing second fiddle to his brother, fighting wars on his behalf, administering the country and doing Edward's dirty work. Did anyone seriously expect him to do all that then hand it on to his brother's whelps, acting as the trustee for their estate? C'mon.
Let's hope someone gives Seed the chance to tackle the classical roles and get his name up there with Jacobi - they were both in I Claudius two thousand years ago - and the heavyweight actors of his generation.
In the meantime, catch the remainder of the run at:
Monday 21 – Saturday 26 November
CARDIFF New Theatre
Box Office 029 2087 8889
CHICHESTER Festival Theatre
Box Office 01243 781312