Written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn
In an era when words like “searing”, “innovative” and “immersive” leap from the pages of theatrical press releases, it’s encouraging to see that, in the right hands, a traditional, well-made, problem play can still move audiences and speak to present day social issues. Although HERO’S WELCOME rarely feels forced or inorganic, all the architectural underpinnings of classic drama are here. The fourth wall remains in place the entire time, an inciting incident causes conflict among people with a shared history. Guns, introduced in the first act, are duly discharged in the second as per Chekhov’s famous rule. In tone, however, the play is refreshingly unlike its Naturalist forebears. Even when writer/director is Alan Ayckbourn allows very bad things to happen to his characters, he does so with a spontaneity and tender eccentricity that keeps the evening from becoming a downer.
After serving with distinction in an overseas military campaign, decorated soldier Murray (Richard Stacey) is the toast of the media. The official story has it that Murray and his men rescued a group of children from a school that was under siege. As is often the case with war, though, the confusion of battle has left Murray uncertain as to what actually happened that day. Eager to return to civilian domesticity, Murray returns to his home town in the north of England accompanied by his new wife Madrababacascabuna, “Baba” for short, (Evelyn Hoskins). Here, the hero’s welcome he receives is tempered by old resentments. Town mayor Alice (Elizabeth Boag), dutifully conducts a ritual in Murray’s honor, but clearly she hasn’t forgotten that when Murray departed abruptly 17 years ago, he left a mess behind. The details of that mess gradually emerge as Baba and Murray attempt to put down roots. They plan to reopen the shuttered hotel owned by Murray’s family (wryly named the Bird of Prey in a nod to the symbolic seagulls and wild ducks of yesteryear), and turn it into a going concern. Not so fast. As it turns out, Murray’s bankrupt dad couldn’t keep up the payments, and the inn now belongs to the city council. Nothing can happen without Alice’s help, and she’s determined to demolish the dilapidated structure to make way for up-market retailers and luxury apartments. Another person with whom Murray has some unfinished business is upper class cad Brad (Stephen Billington). Formerly Murray’s best friend, Brad has always felt inferior—so much so that he aims to settle the score by attempting to seduce Baba. As past wounds are reopened, present –day relationships are put to the test. Barbara’s well-meaning husband Derek (Russell Dixon) is an eternal schoolboy, more adept at building model train stations than sorting out relationships. Brad uses his wife Kara (Charlotte Harwood) as a verbal punching bag— until a final straw awakens her darker impulses. In the ensuing conflagration, Murray is forced to decide if he should stand his ground at home or leave town under cover of night as he did all those years ago.
In much the same way as he builds a script, Ayckbourn directs with an unhurried, confident baton. The ensemble, all superbly cast, navigate the quirky turns of the plot authenticity and intelligence. The physical demeanor of the actors underlines the character’s disparate trajectories, as the longtime residents of the town seem both wearier and more surefooted on their home turf than the prodigal Murray. Like her budding command of English, Baba’s first eager steps into this class war battlefield are shaky, but grow stronger as she gets the lay of the land. Michael Holt’s economic sets and costume neatly embody the characters’ social strata and personal priorities.
At 77, Ayckbourn continues to develop artistically, expanding on the humanistic wit that distinguished his earlier work. And with maturity comes a lighter touch, and an understanding that home is where the heroism is.
HERO’S WELCOME continues through July 3, 2016 at 59E59 Theaters. 59 East 59th Street, New York, New York.10022 Tickets: http://www.59e59.org/boxoffice.php