They say comedy is all about timing. In that regard, Sleepless productions, the folks behind the Oxford Playhouse’s new production of Alan Ayckbourn’s “tragedy with jokes” must be congratulated for so impeccably placing their production within the Trinity timeline. Coming out in second week, the play comes just late enough in the term that its comedy is a welcome relief, and just early enough that its nastier side is something to relish, rather than something to remind you of an already dismal academic life. But academic joshing aside, Living Together is really rather good- an incredibly intricate, disciplined production, which manages to be both laugh-out-loud funny and compellingly bleak, often simultaneously, and indeed often in the same line.
The plot concerns three sisters and their variously drunken, uptight and disconnected husbands, all of whom are staying for a weekend with their incredibly ill mother, who, while she never makes a direct appearance, hovers malevolently over the entire play. Things start off slightly awkwardly between them, but as the play unfolds various scandalous affairs and shameful secrets come to the fore, especially surrounding feckless charmer Norman (played by Freddie Bowerman) who, we learn early on, has had an affair with sister-in-law Annie (played by Lizzy Mansfield), who has been rather worn down and depressed by having to care for her mother full-time.
In the program notes, directors Griffith Rees and Laura Cull big up the ‘naturalism’ of their production, and it’s this that stops the play from being just another Ayckbourn production. The comedy is impeccably timed, but muted, and the play seems to be constantly teetering on the edge of farce, only to be pulled back firmly into reality. It often feels like we, the audience, are intruding on a family argument- only everyone has much better lines. This is helped by imaginative use of an expansive set, courtesy of designer Abby Clarke, which allows for events to unfold in two completely separate places at once, which lends the play a great sense of verisimilitude.
The cast does an excellent job of taking the colourful comic lines, and toning them down to the point where they provide a sense of humanity as well as a series of sassy zingers. Freddie Bowerman is wonderfully sleazy and yet extremely affable, and he and Lizzy Mansfield absolutely shine in their scenes together. Outside the two nominal leads, James Watson does an excellent job as a laughably dull straight man, while Sarah Mathews does a wonderfully icy passive-aggressive routine. Mary Higgins is a wonderfully charismatic and witty stage presence, and James Aldred brims with Mark Gatiss-y charm. Aldred and Mathews also deserve credit for so successfully handling the play’s conclusion; they both spend most of the play as part of a larger group of people, but when left on their own and handed an incredibly tough bit of understated comedy, they both absolutely nail it.
That sense of understated confidence underlines the entire play, and is what makes it such a delight; it does not feel the need to show off. As one character remarks, it is not “ebullient”. Instead it is laid back and well-focused, confident that it knows what it’s doing. And doing it very well indeed.
Living Together is on at the Oxford Playhouse until Saturday 9th May.