A Chorus Of Disapproval: World Premiere Reviews

This page contains a selection of reviews from the world premiere production of Alan Ayckbourn's A Chorus Of Disapproval at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, in 1984. All reviews are the copyright of the respective publication and / or author. Extracts from reviews of the original London production can be found here.

A Chorus Of Disapproval (by Robin Thornber)
"It's Alan Ayckbourn's 31st play, and it's one of his best. He's taken an amateur operatic society in the process of staging John Gay's
The Beggar's Opera and he's used this setting, which is almost a joke in itself, to explore two recurrent Ayckbourn preoccupations.
The underlying theme is the buffeting of the hapless innocent in a world where all the others seem to be only out for themselves. Like Colin in
Absent Friends, Guy (Lennox Greaves) has recently lost his wife when he joins the Pendon amateurs, and with his looks and unassuming manner he is an instant hit with all the girls and boys in the company. Everyone trusts him, the newcomer to a curdling clique.
From his first audition for a walk-on role, he's led by a series of mischances to an opening night triumph playing Macheath. And on the way he finds himself, like his character, caught up with two women. Fay (Lesley Meade) is the predator, married to a bent builder with whom she swings into sexual novelties. Hannah (Alwyne Taylor) is the victim, the housewife whose drudgery lets the show's producer indulge his egomania.
This ex-professional actor is one of Ayckbourn richest celebrations of quirky character - now a provincial solicitor finding expression for his emotional Welsh temperament in the tantrums of directing amateur operatics. "I wish to God they were professionals," he said, "then I could sack them." He's vividly created in a finely-judged performance by Russell Dixon.
And it's in this overlap between theatrical illusion and reality that Ayckbourn romps around with masterly relish. Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre becomes the amateurs' hall as Dafydd ducks in and out of the control box, plotting the lighting, while his wife and Guy try to find dark corners of the stage for a climatic row. It's a beautiful moment.
And the show brims with wicked little in-jokes bubbling up from Ayckbourn's 20-odd years' experience of backstage gossip.
With immaculately intricate settings by Edward Lipscomb, using the twin revolves of the in-the-round stage, the show is finally embellished with beautifully straight renderings of the traditional songs from John Gay's original. Musical director was Paul Todd."
(The Guardian, 4 May 1984)

Vintage Ayckbourn (by Eric Shorter)
"Alan Ayckbourn loves to put a sour spoke in the boisterously comic works of his plays. It is his way of pulling us all up. But I do not remember his doing it more neatly than in his latest piece,
A Chorus of Disapproval, at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, Scarborough.
This high-spirited entertainment marks his 25 years as a dramatist at this seaside resort and it is among his shapeliest. I should say it will be among his more obviously popular offerings, for it is all (or nearly all) about an amateur operatic society putting on
The Beggar's Opera and how a nervous newcomer gets off (with a warning) with a couple of wives.
In a way, it could be seen as Mr Ayckbourn's answer to Mr Frayn's
Noises Off. For half the fun consists in desperation at rehearsal as the obsessive director, very Welsh, very explosive, very funny as acted by Russell Dixon, tries to bring the show to life. And there is a gallery of suburban types to drop out unexpectedly at regular intervals so that the newcomer finds himself promoted from a minor role to Macheath before the opening night.
But it is not a farce. It is a comedy. It is a study essentially of character. And the other half of the fun is the way in which the author weaves from the 18th-century songs a commentary on his hero who can't say no, and whose acquaintance is cultivated solely for its use. There is a patch of land next to the factory where he works and people want to get their hands on it.
Mr Ayckbourn, however, seldom comes to serious grips with his plot. When he does, the triteness shows. But the idea of a character, innocent but weak, whom society battens on to for ulterior motives looms now and then out of the larks; and the evening thrives essentially on the author's gift for creating believable and funny people with economy and wit.
Here is a romp with serious undertones; and if it is all a trifle obvious and ultimately slight, it creates, after a slow and cumbersome beginning, a steady ripple of laughter for three hours, with acting that hardly matters apart from Mr Dixon's exuberant master of ceremonies. Lennox Greaves's diffident charmer and Alwyne Taylor's adulterous mother.
Director, Alan Ayckbourn."
(Daily Telegraph, 4 May 1984)

A Chorus Of Disapproval (by Martin Hoyle)
"It is Alan Ayckbourn's Silver Jubilee at the Theatre in the Round….
While not as black as some recent work, his latest comedy is an uncomforting look at provincial greed, lechery and deviousness; and an affirmation of that old Ayckbourn belief in the destructiveness of good intentions.
These are embodied in Guy, an innocent newcomer to an amateur light operatic society who, through the turbulence inherent in all artistic organisations, ends up a bemused lead in
The Beggar's Opera, having been taken on for a one-line part. His well-meaning passivity leads him to entanglements with two married women (compare Macheath), unwilling contact with shady business deals and the betrayal of a friend.
His disastrous progress through local society has its quota of Ayckbourn moments. Vintage misunderstandings irradiate a dinner party where a "swinging" married couple prepare to introduce the unsuspecting hero to the wife-swapping set.
Stylised comment is provided when characters freeze in mid-scene, lights dim, and others come on to sing pointedly appropriate excerpts from
The Beggar's Opera. Gay's bouncy astringency works well. I suspect that Ayckbourn, as so often, is hovering on the brink of savage satire while nervous of losing his clown's public.
To this devoted Ayckbournite the play seemed both diffuse and insubstantial, a warm-up for a full-blooded comedy that never materialises. But the author manages one memorable creation: the opera's producer is floridly theatrical and exhaustingly Welsh. At first glance Dafydd ap Llewellyn is a cheerily crass Ayckbourn bully, steamrolling both his wife (shades of
Just Between Ourselves) and associates with varyingly amiable insensitivity. Russell Dixon seizes all opportunities as this shady solicitor, all quickly-punctured swagger and easily hoodwinked self-assurance. He is unforgettable urging the local ladies to put more gumption into their dancing. "These are all hoeers and pimps! Sell us your body, Linda!"
The author directs smoothly on the theatre's double-revolve, and the cast play beautifully together like the company they are. Lennox Greaves evokes Guy's good-natured ineffectualness with the look of a young Dirk Bogarde, and Alwyne Taylor's put-upon housewife revealing a grasping streak does justice to a new, if increasingly pessimistic, complexity of characterisation that implies bile beneath the belly-laugh."
(Financial Times, 4 May 1984)

A Chorus Of Disapproval (by John Peter)
"If Alan Ayckbourn were French we would be comparing him with Molière. If he were Russian we might be comparing him with Chekhov. As it is, we watch him with amazement, sometimes tinged with disapproval, as he turns out, year after year, his grim farcical domestic comedies of English middle-class life.
If he were Russian, his characters would be, or pretend to be, patchily educated and would talk grandly about their ideas and feelings. But English middle-class people either have no education or they conceal it; they are obsessionally secretive about their feelings, and they regard ideas with mistrust. Hence the relentlessly mundane atmosphere of Ayckbourn's comedies: his characters talk the language of purposeful clichés, aggressive or evasive.
It is a revelation to see one of these plays in Scarborough where he has been writing them for his own small theatre for 25 years: for here you realise that his characters are not only middle class, but also Yorkshire men: mean, cagey, suspicious and bloody-minded as well as rumbustiously generous, ebullient and quite appallingly candid.
The new play,
A Chorus of Disapproval, unfolds in a mood of cheerful, rapacious hostility. The amateur operatic society of a small town is rehearsing a production of The Beggar's Opera under the direction of a ghastly Welsh solicitor. We soon find out everybody's profession (mostly solid and dull), and sexual posture (mostly precarious and dull).
Outside the rehearsal room there is a shady business deal in the offing and some of the cast circle one another wanly, preparing for the kill. The production is beset by incompetence, tantrums and jealousies; but, like Macheath himself; it is saved in the nick of time by a newcomer. He is a young twit who has just joined the local branch of a multinational company diversified beyond description: his job is in alternative forward costing", and he's also a consolable widower....
I think we get the picture. This is a play within a play within a play, combining almost ostentatious ingenuity and merciless observation. Ayckbourn's world, like Molière's (and John Gay's), is inhabited by twits and sharks: the difference is that nobody believes in anything except number one and that it would not occur to any of these people to moralise.
The play is a little slow off the mark and would benefit from judicious pruning; but Ayckbourn's own direction, on this small in-the-round stage, has the skill and hilarity of a circus and the ferocity of a bear pit. I really can't single out anyone from the excellent cast of thirteen: they play splendidly together, like a chamber orchestra of sharp instruments."
(Sunday Times, 6 May 1984)

A Chorus Of Disapproval (by Michael Ratcliffe)
A Chorus of Disapproval is playing in repertory at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round until 5 September. It is the brilliant and mordant comedy of an innocent growing up fast in the world of an amateur operatic society rehearsing The Beggar's Opera. The process whereby a lonely, stage-struck, but not over bright young widower (Lennox Greaves) receives every inducement from money and sex to the role of Macheath itself in order to reveal information about his employer which he has never possessed, produces a subtle mirror-image of Gay's original in a piece of Jonsonian resonance and drive. I can't wait to see it again: the National stages A Chorus of Disapproval at the end of the year and, right now, I can't think of anything they need more."
(The Observer, 17 June 1984)

Ayckbourn On Target (by Gerard Dempsey)
"Every year, Alan Ayckbourn writes a play for a seaside repertory company housed in a 330-seat converted schoolroom theatre.
From this unlikely launching pad, the trajectory runs straight to the West End, Broadway, Vienna and Tokyo, making Mr. Ayckbourn the most successful as well as the most prolific playwright in the world today.
He works on many levels, frequently from a play within a play. This time, though, he may have over-reached himself - his latest work is set inside somebody else's play.
The evening opens bewilderingly with the costumed cast taking a curtain call with bawls, rehearsed speeches and flowers for the leading lady.
For this is the local operatic society's brave attempt at
The Beggar's Opera, and Mr. Ayckbourn has cunningly counter-pointed the thievery and harlotry of the 18th century with the lusty offstage antics of his suburban players.
The format may prove virtually unplayable, but it is wildly funny, and Russell Dixon's chapel-haunted irascible Welsh director ("Give it some power! You're supposed to be whores and pimps!") is alone worth the price of a ticket."
(Daily Express, 4 May 1984)

A Chorus Of Disapproval (by Anthony Masters)
"After Stratford's anniversary comes Scarborough's. Twenty-five years ago a young actor-playwright, barely 20, appeared in his own comedy
The Square Cat. A few years later the West End discovered Alan Ayckbourn, and the rest is history.
His work during this quarter century is rich in major and minor masterpieces that will certainly live and are now overdue for revival. Lately, however, his muse seems to have taken a holiday. Now self-directed, his plays have got longer (as well as more negative) and one's usual pleasure at recognising the kin of earlier characters and situations becomes suspicion that he is just recycling them.
This latest, his thirty-first full-length play at Scarborough, lets one of his innocent heroes loose among the familiar pack of the sad and destructive - in this case the Pendon (remember Pendon?) Operatic Society, which young Guy (Lennox Greaves) joins socially after his wife's death. With
The Beggar's Opera looming, the Leeds boy meets some relentlessly caricatured additions to Ayckbourn's gallery of suburban deadlies: the powerful local councillor (Alan Thompson) obstinately diagnosing him as a Scot, a Welsh bore of a director called Dafydd, sex-puss Fay (Lesley Meade) and her macho Ian (Mark Jax), and surly stage-manager (Jane Hollowood) whose surlier father runs the joyless stage-door local.
Enough, you might think, for a Willy Russell - or, as here, the former author of a clutch of classics - to furnish a feeble, prolix and sometimes surprisingly heavy-handed piece eked out with farcical business. Guy also meets Dafydd's frustrated wife; and their doomed love blossoms in a little world without privacy or pity. The usual suburban-community business network entraps him still further.
Caught between Hannah and Fay of the wife-swapping parties (to which he unknowingly brings an old-age pensioner) as he rises through successive substitutions from a walk-on up to Macheath, his predicament permits some witty musical cross-references. But even the best scene, in which the deceived Dafydd confides his wife's frigidity, ends in a shameless borrowing from
Confusions (someone has switched on the Tannoy).
No amount of shrewd observation of amateur dramatic ruthlessness, hysteria and tantrums can disguise all the recycling. The fur-coated prima donna (Heather Stoney) last wore her crinoline in
Ten Times Table. The old seam, at least, appears to be finally worked out; but closing uneconomic mines is easier to advise than to accept."
(The Times, 4 May 1984)

Ayckbourn Acrobatics Reveal Behind-The-Scenes Dramas (by Lynne Curry)
"Palos, the Pendon Amateur Light Operatic Society, has had its ups and downs. Take, for example,
Snow Blossom, based loosely on the Books of the Genji and adapted by Palos composer / producer Murdock Parkes.
Two more of the same ilk and Parkes had to go. It was sad. It was bitter. It was possibly sweet heaven compared to the trauma that befalls Palos when its thundering Welsh windbag of a producer, Dafydd ap Llewellyn, decides to lead the assembly into
The Beggar's Opera.
The opera he can cope with, even though Raymond the lights chap could barely illuminate a Christmas tree.
It's what goes on offstage that nearly knocks Dafydd, raised on his father's rugby legend, into touch.
Hannah, his wife, colder than the bottom of a deep-freeze. Ian and Fay, habitual wife-swappers. Rebecca, drinking spouse of a man who can spend 60 minutes listening to a tape of a steam engine.
Then Linda, arsonist daughter of doting parents, whose pink-streaked forelock may have complemented quite well the leaping flames from the occasion when she set fire to her mother's wardrobe.
Or Crispin, with a ring through his ear and an unlikely fatal charm that has two females doting on him.
But as this behind-the-scenes drama unfolds around Guy, the only ordinary bloke in the society, it becomes apparent that Pendon's amateur operatics and John Gay's 18th-century parody have more in common than might at first seem apparent.
With every step that Guy takes up the casting ladder, his personal affairs take a step nearer unreality. Finally, the opera takes on a purpose for those appearing in it. And every word they sing they mean to the last consonant.
Alan Ayckbourn, in his 31st play,
A Chorus of Disapproval, is quick to disclaim any association with anyone who might fancy to have seen themselves onstage, but he really need not have bothered.
All the characters bar Guy are such caricatures that nobody, even when there are two local amateur operatic groups to go at, could possibly be that bad. Or, to be honest, when the actors are not being deliberately awful, that good.
The play had last night's first-night audience howling with laughter throughout, but I felt uncomfortable at what seemed at times an excess of technique over tale.
It seemed that every avenue had been explored in irony; no technical stone had been left unturned; no opportunity lost to try, or retry, something different.
There was the revolving stage, brought into play to switch times and places.
There was the parallel used so effectively in
A Trip to Scarborough, merging timescales and events.
There was the idiosyncratic use of practically all the theatre, with the scene-shifters and the technicians involved in the action.
Was Raymond the Lights working for Alan Ayckbourn or Dafydd ap Llewellyn? That depended. The boundaries became more blurred; the change from one snatch of unreality to another less distinct.
Despite cracking performances from the actors, notably Russell Dixon as Dafydd, I left the theatre feeling that for all the brilliance and all the wit, this was a display of acrobatics too distracting for a good look at the themes."
(Scarborough Evening News, 3 May 1984)

A Chorus Of Disapproval (by Desmond Pratt)
"This, Mr. Ayckbourn's 31st play, concerns the ineptitudes of Pendon Amateur Light Operatic society in its attempts to produce John Gay's
The Beggar's Opera, without allowing the excesses of the whores and thieves of Gay's world, in fact their own standards of morality.
Again, it is a set of variations on married an public conscience yet it is his first overt black comedy and it has curdled on him.
It is a mad, mad world my masters, but the ages do not match happily.
The most apt description of the play lies in Gay's self-composed epitaph: "Life is a jest and all things show it I thought so once, and now I know it."
When the reprieve arrives for Macheath standing on the gallows with his neck almost in the noose it is a reprieve for the libertine and corruption in high places which the play (modern) has described between the opera sequences in which the songs of Gay are used inventively as ironic commentary on 20th century manners displayed by the cast.
Even then, it is an uneasy marriage designed to give a new overcoat to Mr. Ayckbourn's favourite topic - infidelity.
Mr. Ayckbourn has created his own corrupt world and the ending of the play is scampered as he dispenses with his cast in a world of high exhilaration which ignores the problems (too many) earlier.
On the sudden death of his wife, Guy Jones (an amiable performance by Lennox Greaves of an indeterminate part) seeks consolation with the society for whom he eventually plays Macheath - and with the wives of various members.
There is the humble neurotic Hannah (Alwyne Taylor) wife of the irate Welsh director (a towering, roaring Russell Dixon "if they were professionals, I could sack them"); the very modern seductress (Lesley Meade at her most tantalising), wife of the insufferable bargainer (a smooth Mark Jax); and the frigid manipulator (Heather Stoney), wife of the contented collector of signs of vanishing England (a lovely, absent-minded, reminiscent, Alan Thompson).
To complicate the marital scene even further we have a punk actor (Daniel Flynn at his nastiest) and his hyper-aggressive barmaid - prompter (Jane Hollowood) and the bargaining for a piece of land between three parties.
Both of these could be reduced or even cut for the show needs to lose 30 minutes from its somewhat tiresome three hours.
There is not a pleasant person on stage unless it be the amiable philanderer of Mr. Greaves, always in two minds about almost everything including his women.
It is colourful, staged on two revolves, and very funny, for Mr. Ayckbourn has a perceptive ear for the idiocies of everyday conversation.
But we have met most of the Pendonites before in the 1977
Ten Times Table planning a disastrous pageant, another excuse for excursions into martial infidelity which stands on its own feet without any help from the early 18th century."
(Yorkshire Post, 4 May 1984)

All reviews are copyright of the respective publication.