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Apr 29

Way Upstream by Alan Ayckbourn at Chichester Festival Theatre

Credit: Simon Annand

Credit: Simon Annand

When a play requires a river, a tree-lined bank and a floating motor cruiser as its set, it’s destined to be seldom performed. But Chichester Festival Theatre doesn’t scare easily when it comes to technical challenges and Nadia Fall’s extraordinary production of Alan Ayckbourn’s dark comedy easily meets the play’s epic technical demands.

With most of the action taking place onboard Hadforth Bounty the first half is where the laughs are to be had. Keith and June have taken to the water with colleagues and business partners Alastair and Emma for a jolly waterways holiday. Trouble on dry land back at their novelty goods factory sees PA Mrs Hatfield (Nicola Sloane) having to show up bankside with daily updates. Brash and self-important, Keith (Peter Forbes) quickly nominates himself as captain, while his disgruntled wife June (Sarah Parish) carps, huffs and idles. Lily-livered Alastair (Jason Hughes) and his timid missus Emma (Jill Halfpenny) end up doing the bulk of the graft, resentment building like a slowly developing tidal wave.

But the sit-com feel and the jokes at the expense of well-drawn middle-class characters give way to altogether nastier themes. With the arrival of Vince (Jason Durr), a savvy and seemingly harmless bit of eye candy who does, unlike the novice sailors, at least seem to know how to avoid capsizing, initial barbed teasing swiftly degenerates into disturbing casual cruelty, punctuated only by drunken revels and sexual shenanigans. Manipulating Keith off the boat to go and deal with the threat of strike action back at the factory, Vince introduces minxy Fleur (Emily Laing) into the equation, all the while ramping up the intimidation and spite.

As Ayckbourn highlights the consequences of power in the wrong hands and the fallout of perpetual feebleness, the laughter from the audience gets increasingly nervous.

Fabulously played, the performances are all stunningly good; not even Ben Stones gloriously clever set, beautifully lit by Tim Mitchell, can upstage this superb cast.

An odd but nevertheless compelling play, the launch of the 2015 Festival season at Chichester makes an impressive splash.

Until 16 May. Box office: 01243 781312; www.cft.org.uk

Vicky Edwards