No summer in London would be complete without at least one Ayckbourn play to lighten the mood, and this time the Menier Chocolate Factory has revived one of the more unusual ones. Communicating Doors is a sort-of supernatural / sci-fi comedy set in the same hotel room in the 1980s, 2000 and 2020 in which particular characters are able to journey into the past using a enchanted cupboard. It is about as bonkers as it sounds, but with Ayckbourn’s trademark gentle British humour and a dash of Blithe Spirit magic, it somehow pulls it off.
In 2020 dominatrix Poopay arrives at a hotel suite to find Reece a man incapacitated by illness who, rather than enjoying her services, really wants her to be an independent witness to a death-bed confession about how he conspired in the murder of both his wives by his associate Julian. Before long Julian himself appears and realises what’s been going on and Poopay escapes into a cupboard. When she emerges later that night she finds herself in the exact same hotel room, only 20 years earlier and it’s occupied by Reece’s second wife Ruella. Poopay must convince Ruella that her life is in danger and they must work together to not only save first wife Jessica but also to stop Julian before he stops them.
This isn’t your standard Ayckbourn fare and his staple middle class but lonely characters don’t really appear here. Instead we get a time-hopping not-quite murder mystery that you know what, actually works a treat. The premise is utterly ridiculous and given it’s 1994 creation may even seem a little tame in the sci-fi / fantasy extremes of the twenty-first century, but none of that matters as Ayckbourn’s distinctive ability to skewer a certain type of British behaviour shines through. It also has a genuine sense of danger for all three women as they battle against their destinies and the menacing Julian, before finally giving the audience a neat and redemptive ending all round.
Rachel Tucker drives the action brilliantly as the dominatrix turned time-traveling samaritan Poopay – her pseudonym which is meant to be poupee, or doll in French. In a classic Ayckbourn way she doesn’t seem at all cut out for the life she has chosen, far too nervous and meek than you’d expect someone from her profession to be. Tucker is great at pulling all these contradictions together while quite rightly playing the role absolutely straight to maintain the drama of her situation. Imogen Stubbs makes quite an entrance as the bossy but practical Ruella who hears and accepts the situation with remarkable ease. Stubbs brings a motherly quality to the role in her desire to protect both Poopay and Jessica, her predecessor as Reece’s wife, which means she’s as willing to be nurturing as she is to discipline and is marvellous in her first scene where she insists her nocturnal visitor sits down quietly and stops making such a fuss – traits I found to be somewhat familiar!
Perfectly complementing this unlikely trio is Lucy Briggs-Owen as the dappy Jessica who refuses to believe a word of it when Ruella travels back to the 1980s to interrupt her wedding night. Briggs-Owen is probably one of the most versatile actresses in London proving her comedy mettle here as well as her more dramatic skills in last year’s woeful Fortune’s Fool at the Old Vic – in fact Briggs-Owen was its only saving grace in the absence of the unwell Iain Glenn. Her role here is rather smaller than the others but proves to be a crucial one and one of the highlights of the evening.
While this is very much a play about the underestimated resourcefulness of three very different women, they are ably supported by three fine actors. David Bamber, known to most as Pride & Prejudice’s Mr Collins, is a genuinely evil Julian, creditably wringing every bit of menace from the role, despite some extraordinary wigs allowing him to play himself in two eras. There’s a scene before the interval that will make you want to lock all your doors very carefully when you go home. Similarly Robert Portal gets to play Reece as an aged man and as an 80s newlywed. Despite being off stage for much of the play, in some ways the whole piece is about him and the women he encountered, so Portal gives just enough in both periods to help the audience find his success credible.
Finally Matthew Cottle pops up as long-standing security man Harold, a most Ayckbourn of creations, a helpful jobs-worth naturally disappointed by his own life. Appropriate that Cottle, an actor who frequently appears in Ayckbourn’s plays should take the most likely character. It’s a great role and fun for Cottle to play, as Harold goes from young man, who’s only staying a few years, to veteran. His reaction during an absolutely hilarious balcony scene in 2000 is priceless
Director Lindsay Posner and designer Richard Kent have created a staid but likely hotel room that doesn’t change its décor (or clearly its staff) in 40 years. It’s nice to have a cut-away wall showing the bathroom which adds a bit of variety from staging everything in the living room, and becomes a useful place to hide. They’ve gone for full on clunk with the titular ‘Communicating Door’ and I quite like that, the premise is a little bit silly so why not emphasise that instead of trying to make it look swish and modern. So what we get is a very self-aware but great revolving cupboard some swirly lights and ‘magic time travelling’ music – love it.
Communicating Doors is a genuinely fun night of escapist nonsense full of great performances and great writing. I’ve seen at least one Ayckbourn in London every summer for years and it’s a tradition I always look forward to, and still haven’t seen anywhere near all of them. This one though is a little different to the rest, so it’s well worth popping over to London Bridge for this quirky little tale of ex-wives, prostitutes, guilty businessmen, hotel living, sinister men name Julian and a bit of time travel.
Communicating Doors is at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 27 June, and tickets are from £32.50 with concessions available at £25.