The audience at the Mercury last night was the thinnest we'd ever seen it. That was a pity. We've enjoyed some good shows at the Mercury over the past few years, and with falling public funding the theatre needs all the bums on seats it can get. That was clearly the management's view, as at the end of the performance one of the actors thanked us for being a lovely audience, and appealed to us to come to some of the other plays in the Ayckbourn series.
We were not an especially lovely audience. An elderly couple who were sitting in splendid isolation in the otherwise empty row behind us talked to each other about switching off their phones after the play had started, and had another all too audible exchange about the play near the end of the first half, just as one of the actors was delivering a key speech. There was a rather stuffy announcement before the play began asking us to turn phones off, because the lit screens as well as the noise were distracting to the performers and other audience members, so maybe they should have gone whole hog and reminded us not to talk as well.
I don't know why the play was so poorly attended, since I'd have thought that Ayckbourn was a natural for the Colchester audience. Sharp but not too intellectually demanding comedy of middle class manners and misunderstandings. That's normally right up Colchester's street. Don't get me wrong, I admire Alan Ayckbourn. His plays are funny, horribly accurate skits on human nature, and I am sure there is great technical skill in the way he makes his plots hold together and gets his actors on and off stage.
Perhaps the Mercury was over ambitious in scheduling four of them so close together. They are putting on a short run of four two-handers from a longer cycle called Intimate Exchanges, which according to Wikipedia was written when Ayckbourn had a season to fill at his Scarborough playhouse, and all except two of his troupe of actors suddenly left to do other things. The same two actors play all the characters, six in total last night, and the same characters appear in more than one play, with the action diverging after five seconds, five minutes, five days, five weeks and five years to give a total of sixteen different unfolding plots and eventual outcomes. The first couple of scenes are necessarily fairly short, otherwise audience members who did go and see more than one play from the cycle might start getting restive at having to go over the same material again.
As the Systems Administrator pointed out, the Mercury has to stage all four plays close together, because otherwise they couldn't get the actors back, and part of the point of it is to have the same actors in all the plays. The trouble from our point of view is that while we like Ayckbourn, and the Mercury, we don't want to go and see his plays twice in the same week, or even weekly, so we booked one from the series. The publicity material assured us that any play stood alone, so we simply chose a convenient date. It may be that other people's appetite for regional theatre was about the same as ours, hence the empty seats. Or maybe some people didn't believe that you could watch any one of the plays without seeing the earlier ones, and were put off.
I'm not entirely convinced by the concept of the two-hander, although I can see it helps keep costs down in these hard times to only have two actors. Even with slick costume changes there has to be a lot of time when only one character is on stage, either soliloquising, or talking to somebody who can't be seen, because they are off stage, or as in last night's play because they are hiding in a garden shed. That gets a tiny bit wearisome, and the temptation to guess which character the second actor is next going to appear as, and which entrance they are going to use, is irresistible but distracting.
It's a challenge for the actors to differentiate between the various people they're playing. Last night's cast made a reasonable stab at it, though I thought the female actor relied a little too heavily on wig and costume to distinguish between the two middle class characters. I suppose they were both brittle, unhappy people, so Ayckbourn hadn't made it easy for her, but I could have done with them walking and talking slightly more differently. A friend who went earlier in the run said that the performances were dreadful, which seemed harsh, but they weren't compelling either.
So maybe word has spread among the theatre going public of north Essex that it wasn't a vintage effort by the Mercury. Or maybe the fact that ticket prices have gone up is hitting sales. The best seats are now £19 on a Tuesday, whereas when we started going a few years back they were more like £13. Tickets for Spiers and Boden recently were around the £15 mark, and that was a sell-out, so the inhabitants of Colechester can afford to go out when they want to, but perhaps when a pair of good seats at the Mercury set you back closer to forty pounds than twenty-five it is enough to make people think about how many shows they book.
Anyway, I hope trade picks up for them, without feeling the need to book tickets myself for the rest of Intimate Exchanges. It would be a great pity if the Mercury ran into the financial quicksands and folded.