Review: Roundelay at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham

PUBLISHED: 17:07 25 February 2015 | UPDATED: 17:07 25 February 2015

Roundelay at The Everyman, Cheltenham / Photo: Tony Bartholomew

Roundelay at The Everyman, Cheltenham / Photo: Tony Bartholomew

© Tony Bartholomew

Was it Karma that meant Katie Jarvis ended up at Roundelay, an Alan Ayckbourn play that might seek to prove life’s a lottery, but doesn’t?

Roundelay at The Everyman, Cheltenham / Photo: Tony BartholomewRoundelay at The Everyman, Cheltenham / Photo: Tony Bartholomew

So here are two stories, by chance. Firstly, there’s my friend Julian, who was selling a moped. He happened to be at Kemble Air Show when his son, Craig, called him on his mobile to give him the number of someone who was interested in buying. “I haven’t got anything to write it down on,” Julian protested.

“Just try and remember it,” Craig suggested.

So Julian dialled what he thought was the number, just as a particularly noisy fly-by took place. “I can’t hear you,” the voice at the other end was saying. “Pardon?” yelled Julian in reply. Suddenly, a chap a few people down in the crowd, looked at Julian, and Julian looked back – both realising they were talking to each other. Julian had incorrectly dialled and got someone in a crowd, standing a few feet away! Lawks.

Then there’s my Northern uncle, who was on holiday in Australia with his wife, going down an escalator in a Sydney shopping centre. A few seconds later, he passed - coming up the escalator - his next-door-neighbour from back home who, unbeknown to him, was on a round-the-world cruise. “The thing was,” my aunt said, about these two laconic, unexcitable individuals, “they just casually nodded and said, ‘Hello, Harry’; ‘Hello, Pete’, and that was that.” Odd.

Roundelay at The Everyman, Cheltenham / Photo: Tony BartholomewRoundelay at The Everyman, Cheltenham / Photo: Tony Bartholomew

So on to Roundelay which, as fate would have it, is playing at the Everyman, which just happens to be in Cheltenham. Ayckbourn’s play deals with chance, but slightly strangely, as it happens. There are five possible loosely-interconnecting scenes, of which four are chosen by the audience, in random order, before the play begins. (Stick with me here; the mechanics are, on the face of it, important.) Fatefully, I wasn’t there to do the choosing as I hadn’t realised you had to be around some 40 minutes before curtain-up to take part in the process, which involved coloured balls and a lottery-type process.

So Fortune decreed that we began with scenes entitled The Agent and The Star. The first important thing to say is that two ladies in the row in front of me kept turning round and staring. I began by wondering whether or not I knew them; and finished by thinking I must have applied lipstick in the dark, cleaned my teeth with Brylcreem, and forgotten I was larkily wearing my M&S control high-waisted girdle pants as a hat. But it turned out they were staring at someone further back, rustling sweets in a way I hadn’t noticed before they’d kindly pointed it out.

Following that, I realised that the chap next to me was playing so constantly with his glasses case that I spent much of my time fantasising about buying an ice cream in the interval, upending his case in this frozen dessert, and silently handing it back to him.

The second half was more compelling.

Roundelay at The Everyman, Cheltenham / Photo: Tony BartholomewRoundelay at The Everyman, Cheltenham / Photo: Tony Bartholomew

The thing is this. Roundelay, as Someone-Who-Knows-Much-More-About-Theatre-Than-I pointed out, would make a darn good radio play. But there wasn’t enough, in all honesty, to rivet you in this visual production. Even on the basis that there was violence, intimidation, transformation, politics and comedy. But, as my companion continued, not even Shakespeare could write 78 plays all considered thumpingly good, advice that comes disappointingly late for Mr Ayckbourn.

There were some wonderful moments. I particularly loved Russell Dixon, Brooke Kinsella and Leigh Symonds in the vignette about a wealthy judge, trying to recreate memories of his early courting days. Beautifully played; funny and moving.

The politician scene also has its moments, in the form of a colossal misunderstanding involving a 16-year-old schoolgirl. I won’t give it away; suffice to say it’s a misunderstanding that probably works best in either a British or Italian political setting.

But probably the person I most admired was Denzil Hebditch, production manager, who appears in the programme talking about the nightmare of trying to organise a seamless night when the scene order (120 possible combinations) is only chosen some 40 minutes before each performance. His photo shows a relaxed, youthful man with few worries; I’d welcome a post-run comparison.

In truth, I enjoyed this production a lot more than anyone else I spoke to. And others in the audience – bar the control-girdle ladies – seemed to laugh a great deal. But I’m just not sure what the ‘chance’ element brings to the party. Would I have viewed things differently, had the order been different? I’d have to go several times to know – something that people with free will probably wouldn’t allow to happen.

So in short, there are moments of high enjoyment. But do remember that the scene-selection process is just balls.

• The Everyman Theatre is at Regent Street, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL50 1HQ, box office 01242 572573;

• Roundelay, written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn, is at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, from Tuesday, February 24-Saturday, February 28

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