Hero's Welcome: World Premiere Reviews
Alan Ayckbourn surprises us yet again (by Michael Billington)
Given that this is Alan Ayckbourn’s 79th play, it is hardly surprising that it has echoes from the past. Although Ayckbourn has dealt before with the destructiveness of the well-intentioned, the brutality of men and the tenacity of women, his new piece still takes one by surprise through its ruefully comic view of the human predicament.
This time the protagonist, Murray, genuinely is a hero: a decorated soldier who, having rescued children from a blazing building, returns after 17 years to his home town with his new foreign bride, Baba. Although Murray plans to settle and restore the fortunes of his family’s run-down hotel, his presence brings nothing but disaster.
Alice, the property-dealing mayor, is tormented by the memory of being jilted by Murray. Meanwhile Murray’s oldest friend, Brad, finds the ancient sexual rivalry between the two of them rising to the surface. Having been greeted as a returning hero, Murray becomes the unwitting cause of marital breakdown, mayhem and even murder.
The well-meaning destroyer is a familiar figure in drama, from Ibsen’s The Wild Duck to Ayckbourn’s own A Chorus of Disapproval. Murray is a disruptive presence, but he is far from being this play’s most fascinating figure. There is an even more naive blunderer in the shape of Alice’s husband, played with a brilliant fusspot concern by Russell Dixon. He is the model of anxious niceness, pours all his energy into a computerised model railway that runs through every room and is desperate to seem a bit of a lad. When the monstrous Brad lays bets as to his chances of seducing Murray’s wife, Mr Dixon emits sympathetic noises that are meant to signal unbridled lechery but actually suggest a seal in labour. The other compelling character is Baba, who shows a phenomenal capacity to grasp the idiosyncrasies of the English language and who actor Terenia Edwards, in an impressive debut, endows with a gutsy resilience that suggests Ayckbourn sees her as the true hero.
The ending, for a play that is so darkly comic, has a touch of sentimental uplift and, I suspect, in more expansive times Ayckbourn would have given us a larger cast list and greater signs of civic discord. But his talent for recording the wanton damage we do to each other, whether with a smiling face or a savage sneer as in the case of Brad, remains undiminished. His production is also well acted by Richard Stacey as the trouble-making Murray, Elizabeth Boag as the brooding mayor, Stephen Billington (no relation) as Brad and Emma Manton as his verbally abused wife, whose relationship is that of jailer and prisoner.
(The Guardian - online, 9 September 2015)
Hero shows Alan Aychbourn's still a charmer (by Patrick Marmion)
Alan Ayckbourn’s stats are formidable. Scarborough’s theatrical laureate is 76 and became artistic director of the city’s Stephen Joseph theatre in 1972.
He’s steered it through many incarnations in different venues before it found a permanent home at the Scarborough Odeon in 1996.
But the single most amazing thing about Sir Alan is that he’s written 79 plays. That’s more plays than years he’s spent on the planet.
Alas, this latest about a soldier returning as a decorated hero to his home town isn’t his most convincing. The do-gooding hero is credible enough with his seemingly mousey East European wife.
But the marriage between his gutsy ex (Elizabeth Boag), who is the town mayor, and her nerdish model train enthusiast husband (Russell Dixon) beggars belief.
Likewise the relationship between the hero’s boorish childhood buddy, who cynically married a strippergram. The play often feels as generic as its set of interlocking Ikea-style show homes.
What’s more, the amiable antics of Ayckbourn’s often self-effacing characters are an uncertain basis for the dark, violent turn that the play takes late on.
And yet Ayckbourn continues to charm as a playwright with his warm characters and crafty storytelling that holds you to the end.
It gets off to a clunky start with our war hero giving a toe-curling interview to pre-recorded TV hosts, but the actors go on to present something much more lively.
Stephen Billington earns boos as the toff who pushes his bubbly wife (Emma Manton) too far. Meanwhile, the play’s heart is secured by Richard Stacey as the gentle war hero and Terenia Edwards as the plucky bride who wants to help regenerate the town centre.
This may not be Ayckbourn’s last or his finest play. But we will miss him when he’s gone.
(Daily Mail, 11 September 2015)
Hero's Welcome (by Charles Hutchinson)
Never go back to a former stomping ground. It can only reopen old wounds, stirring up sore memories, rivalries, jealousies, not so much in the returnee but more damagingly in those that had been left behind.
In writer-director Alan Ayckbourn's 79th play, the unwitting cataclysmic catalyst is Murray (Richard Stacey), the hero of the title, who had left his home town under a cloud 17 years ago and returns as a decorated soldier with a young Eastern European bride, Baba (Terenia Edwards in a terrific professional debut).
The town is to honour him, town band, mayoral ceremony and all, after squaddie Murray rescued children from a fire-ravaged building, but the terse mayor, Alice (Elizabeth Boag), expects him to leave again immediately. After all, he had jilted her at the altar all those years ago without explanation.
Whereas Murray has moved on, embittered Alice has stored up resentment as if in a jar, marrying the kindly, supportive but naive Derek (Russell Dixon), throwing herself into civic duty and corrupt property deals while tolerating Derek's obsession with a hi-tech model railway that has seeped into every room. The toy train will make regular appearances as Ayckbourn comes up with yet another device for visual comedy.
Alas for Alice, she cannot hurry a Murray into leaving. Instead he intends to stay, re-open his family's dilapidated hotel and settle down with Baba. Tenacious and resourceful, she in turn will learn the English language, first from an outdated guide book ("how topping") and then with a tutor, to the point where she knows more long words than all around her: another delightful Ayckbourn comic ingredient amid the prevailing bleakness.
All Murray and Baba want is peace and a new life, but not only Alice is feeling malice. Insufferable, competitive posh brute Brad (Stephen Billington) and Murray had shared a rivalry over girls in younger days that involved Alice, and he has since slunk off into a sour marriage with Kara (Emma Manton), who is trapped by his incessant verbal abuse in a loveless relationship.
Brad, one of Ayckbourn's most loathsome lousy men in his pantheon of rotten stags, sees Baba as a potential conquest to rekindle the old sparring days with Murray. "Love is only a sexual smokescreen," he sneers.
Michael Holt's set in the round is divided into the contrasting living rooms of three homes: a familiar Ayckbourn construction for comic mayhem from earlier days, but Hero's Welcome is Ibsen-black in its darkness yet still hugely humorous.
Child loss, murder, council corruption, a marriage in the fires of hell, the honour (or otherwise) of military service, paralysis, arson, all play their part as Ayckbourn's clouds thicken before a sentimental silver lining that is nevertheless outweighed by the destruction that has gone before.
Stacey's well-meaning Murray may be the maelstrom, but Ayckbourn is more intrigued by the older man, Dixon's stand-out Derek, and once more he goes to the heart of dissatisfied, frustrated women with such rare male insight. At 76, he is writing with a devastating combination of the sage and the rage.
(The Press, 10 September 2015)
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