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A Cricket Match
In terms of challenges for actors, it doesn’t get much more complex than Alan Ayckbourn’s Intimate Exchanges series of plays.
The series of eight plays all start from the same point, as a woman in a garden decides whether or not to have a cigarette.
From then on the action all depends on a series of decisions, creating eight different plays, all with variable endings, performed by just two actors.
“Normally what happens is the two actors learn the whole lot – doing all eight plays with all 16 different variations over the course of a season,” says Stephen Beckett, who is performing just one of the plays, A Cricket Match, with co-star Jenny Funnell.
“The full cycle has only ever been done with Ayckbourn by four actors. The first guy who did it was Robin Herford, who gave up acting afterwards and became a director specialising in Ayckbourn!
“It’s rarely done because of the enormity of it.
“A Cricket Match tends to be done as a single stand-alone play because it has great elements of comedy and farce. It’s seen as one of the funnier versions of the play, although they all stand alone very well.”
A Cricket Match is based around a teachers-versus-pupils game, and takes in a sabotage attempt on the playing field by the caretaker and groundsman and a dubious umpiring decision.
Overlaying it all is the faltering marriage between the headmaster and his wife Celia, and the friends she confides in.
Even though Beckett and Funnell are only focusing on one of the strands in the play series with director Patric Kearns, they are still playing four characters each during the course of the production.
“It’s all incredibly well-crafted,” says Beckett. “There are lots of offstage characters – eight or ten of them, who get shouted at or talked to during the play.
“There’s one point in the middle of the cricket match where I have a fight with myself inside the pavilion while Jenny is onstage trying to stop it.
“I’ve got to say one character’s lines, answer with the other character’s lines and wait for cues from Jenny onstage in the middle of a costume change to become somebody else...”
It’s easy to see why some might want to give up this acting business after a full season of such confusion.
For Beckett, the real centre of the play is Ayckbourn’s choice of subject matter. He is a big fan, having performed at Ayckbourn’s Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough under the guidance of the writer himself.
“A lot of Ayckbourn’s stuff is about the journey as opposed to the result,” he says. “What he tends to do brilliantly is capture people in crisis, or those who have reached a crisis point in their lives.”
The multiple characterisation also allows Ayckbourn’s writing skills to shine.
“When you’re learning good dialogue it goes into your head really quickly,” says Beckett. “He is a master of dialogue – he writes the way people speak, which is an amazing gift.
“Nobody says anything for no reason in his plays. You have to observe the punctuation – a full stop or a comma changes the thought processes of the line. Every one of those words means something.
“I have had long conversations into the night with him asking how he does it.
“Ayckbourn is quite reclusive in real life, and I think the reason is he can’t switch it off.
“He has this digital recorder in his brain, which hears everything around him, and stays there.
“The plays are sometimes verbatim sections of what he has heard in real life – he will overhear something, or someone will say something to him, and it will go into his head and form the basis of a play.”
* More Alan Ayckbourn is on offer at Brighton’s The Nightingale, in Surrey Street, next week. The Academy Of Creative Training is performing his five short comedy plays Confusions from Tuesday, July 3, to Thursday, July 5, and his dark comedy Absent Friends on Friday, July 6, and Saturday, July 7. All shows start at 8pm, tickets £8/6, from www.ticketsource.co.uk
* A Cricket Match is at Devonshire Park Theatre, Compton Street, Eastbourne, from Tuesday, July 3, to Saturday, July 7. Shows start at 7.45pm, tickets from £13.50. Call 01323 412000.
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