Dreams From A Summer House: World Premiere Reviews
Fairy-Tale In The Garden (by Charles Spencer)
"Back in 1975, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Alan Ayckbourn teamed up for the first - and only - time in their careers and wrote a musical called Jeeves. It was a rare, spectacular flop for both of them, and Ayckbourn evidently decided that discretion was the better part of valour and returned to his more familiar comic terrain.
Perhaps memories of Jeeves haunt him still. His delightful Dreams from a Summer House, now receiving its premiere at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, is billed only as a comedy with music, and for the first half hour or so the music (by John Pattison) is in distinctly short supply - a little muted background jazz, tantalising moments when the characters hum snatches of song.
We are in Ayckbourn's reassuringly familiar world of the middle-class Home Counties set, where Grayson, an amiably complacent businessman, and Chrissie, his formidable wife, are holding an alfresco party for le tout Leatherhead. As always, there is tension in the air. Robert, an artist, and the former husband of Amanda, Chrissie and Grayson's daughter, is holed up in the summer house, ostensibly working but actually hitting the bottle in a big way.
Meanwhile Amanda's younger sister Mel pines with unrequited love for Robert. Before long Amanda, a hysterical termagant, returns from a disastrous honeymoon with her cowed second husband.
So far, so predictable, you might think. Then Ayckbourn starts springing a succession of surprises and the show moves off in an entirely unexpected direction. Robert is working on a children's book illustration of Beauty and the Beast when, miraculously, the beauty he has been painting arrives in the flesh on stage.
The eruption of this fairytale character into Ayckbourn's minutely observed realistic world is handled with great panache. Belle, the sweet, raven-haired Beauty, can only understand English when it is sung, and the show becomes a gleefully funny send-up of the conventions of opera and stage musicals, with the solid, down-to-earth characters bursting into initially embarrassed song in order to communicate.
Chrissie, the snobbish Leatherhead matron, can only manage All Things Bright and Beautiful at first between obsequious curtsies to the woman she believes to be the Princess of Berlitzia, but gradually the songs take over, and what began as a skit of musicals becomes a fully fledged musical in its own right.
John Pattison's score is often gorgeously lush, and the love duet between Robert and Belle has a quality of tender yearning to rival anything in The Phantom of the Opera. But there's a real range of styles here, from the operatic to pop, as well as an infuriatingly catchy novelty song ("My little bird inside her cage sang tweet, tweet, tweet") which irresistibly recalls the innocent inanities of Vivian Ellis.
It would be unfair to give away too much of the plot. Suffice it to say that the beast, Baldemar, also puts in an appearance, and has to fight a long war of attrition with Amanda, one of Ayckbourn's most ferociously unhappy female characters.
It is almost impossible not to be seduced by this fanciful flight of the imagination. The story develops a cliff-hanging drama of its own (like a good fairy-tale, in fact) and, despite the many excellent jokes, the musical becomes an unashamedly sentimental celebration of romantic love.
Played on a satisfyingly realistic garden set by Juliet Nichols, there are first-rate performances from the eight strong cast, with especially fine work from Jan Hartley as the lusciously tuneful Beauty, Dale Rapley as the boozy mortal who falls for her, Janie Dee as the fierce, self-lacerating Amanda and, most touching of all, Judith McSpadden as the anguished adolescent Mel.
After the bleak bitterness of much of Ayckbourn's recent work, the warm good humour of Dreams from a Summer House is especially welcome. Enchanting, ingenious and often uproariously funny, it must be a dead cert for a West End transfer."
(Daily Telegraph, 31 August 1982)
Dreams From A Summer House (by Robin Thornber)
"Described as "a comedy with music", Alan Ayckbourn's latest play is actually a subtle send-up of the conventions of operetta and the romantic musical that ends up as a hearty endorsement of romantic sentiment. Dazzling in its inventive stagecraft, wickedly sharp in its witty allusiveness, at heart it's a meringue.
On one level Dreams From A Summer House is a reworking of the awesome folk myth of Beauty and the Beast. Robert (Dale Rapley) is an artist, rather unconvincingly camped in the garden of his monstrous ex-wife's parents, working on an illustration for a children's book when his idealised fantasy of Beauty (Jan Hartley) materialises.
The joke, brilliantly sustained, is that the fairytale characters, Beauty and her Beast, intruded into a suburban Surrey garden party, can only communicate in song (a delicious pastiche of operatic recitative from musical director John Pattison and the swelling strings of his synthesisers). In this Ivor Novello world populated by Julian Slade characters the grass is greener in your imagination: just as Robert's romanticising conjures Beauty, the Beast is invoked by his spoiled-brat ex-wife wishing for a man who isn't a wimp. But do dominant women really want submissive men? The lesson, as in Ayckbourn's earlier play this year, Time Of My Life, is not to overlook the happiness at hand.
Ayckbourn's production is as immaculate as ever, with a hyper-realistic setting by Juliet Nichols and meticulous playing from a strong company who handle the conventions of both naturalism and fantasy - and the singing - with aplomb."
(The Guardian, 11 October 1992)
Dreams From A Summer House (by John Peter)
"Alan Ayckbourn's magical new play is a play with music, rather than a musical. Set during a cocktail party in well-heeled Leatherhead, it introduces songs almost by stealth: people start humming and singing to the sounds of off-stage music. (Composer: John Pattison). Thereafter, the songs become very important, for they contrast people who sing with people who are merely speech-bound; those who are in touch with their emotions and the needs of others and those who are not. Technically, the play is a system of musical chairs which get more or less satisfactorily rearranged at the end. (In Ayckbourn no happy ending is entirely happy.) In spirit, it is an English fairytale for more or less grown-up, sensible people: a Beauty and a Beast appear magically to help some not very sensible people to understand the uses and misuses of enchantment. Funny, beguiling, melancholy: Sondheim with a smile."
(Sunday Times, 6 October 1992)
Dream Ending To A Beastly Party (by Kenneth Hurren)
"Scarborough is a very suitable place for pretending to be a beach.
Now there's a statement requiring some sort of explanation, and if you hang on a minute you'll get one.
Meanwhile, the show up for review is Alan Ayckbourn's Dreams From A Summer House. It's our most prolific and popular playwright's 45th full length play and, like most of his work, is premiered at Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round.
But this is a comedy that differs from its recent predecessors.
First, it has songs, music - agreeable, tinkly stuff by John Pattison, with echoes of Lloyd Webber and Sondheim.
Second, it brings reality into collision with fantasy - when fairytale characters invade a Home Counties garden.
And third, it could almost have been written backwards.
We are in the middle-class stockbroker belt amid preparations for a garden party.
Those familiar with the Ayckbourn approach might expect such an ostensibly blithe scene gradually to darken, illusions to shatter.
Not this time. The party actually begins in disarray.
Apart from minor mishaps with the catering arrangements, the family's elder daughter, Amanda (Janie Dee), returns prematurely from a clearly disastrous honeymoon.
A younger daughter, Mel (Judith McSpadden), is unrequitedly in love with Amanda's previous husband, Robert (Dale Rapley), a moody illustrator of children's books and still a family favourite, who is getting drunk in the summer house.
Ayckbourn now sets about devising happy endings all round.
And he is just ingenious enough to involve fantasy - bringing Robert's Beauty And The Beast illustrations to life at the garden
party - without it seeming too whimsy-whamsy for words.
Beauty (Jan Hartley) arrives first, evidently in response to an unspoken wish of Robert's who introduces her to everyone as a princess. This doesn't prevent the jealous Mel from telling her, in a manner of speaking, to Foxtrot Oscar.
But Ayckbourn is in a determinedly genial mood. He directs his pleasant cast with the lightest of touches; nothing gets too heavy or sinister and it all ends with a jolly song.
But you're probably wondering about that beach thing.
I had been reading about a respected critic of yesteryear who said: 'I let the play wash over me, and then examine the markings in the sand.' This struck me as something worth trying and I was, after all, at the seaside.
The markings left by Dreams From A Summer House, then, are faint and may be gone with the next tide. But while they last, they have charm."
(Mail On Sunday, 30 August 1992)
Dreams From A Summer House (by Malcolm Rutherford)
"Alan Ayckbourn the playwright reminds one of Ian Botham the cricketer. Their great days may be over, but they are not finished yet and they retain the capacity to surprise.
This is Ayckbourn's 45th full-length play in just over 30 years. The surprise is that it is not really a play at all, but more a musical. Many of the familiar ingredients are there: the none-too-happy family, a well-off, but amiably stupid father, a mother who tends to lose her grip, a slightly manic child, mismatches all over the place. This is Leatherhead, Surrey, and a Home Counties summer party around the offstage swimming pool.
There is also a less worldly strand. The piece is woven into the story of Beauty and the Beast and, this being Ayckbourn, there is a twist. Both Belle the Beauty and Baldemar the Beast (a splendid hulk of a man played by Anthony Venditti) can communicate with ordinary mortals only by singing and if the mortals reply in kind.
The start of the singing is the first surprise: the second is when it goes on. At first, it seems a good Ayckbourn joke. Well before the interval, however, we realise that this is quite an ambitious attempt at a musical in its own right. What begins as pastiche develops a style of its own. Not even the multi-talented Ayckbourn, who also directs, could write the music as well. This is provided by John Pattison who has long produced musical accompaniments for straight plays and now becomes at least an equal partner.
It would need a better musical ear than mine to detect every musical allusion. South Pacific seems an initial and recurring theme, but that is not the tenth of it. Sondheim, whose Into the Woods also relied on fairytales, is there in the background. Yet one of the great pleasures of the evening is trying to pick out the rest of them. There is a touch of Don Giovanni and Rigoletto, Franz Lehar, Ivor Novello, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Leonard Bernstein.
The plot thins as the music goes on. Leatherhead diminishes into the distance and the Ayckbourn text, although he wrote the words for the songs, almost disappears. This is Ayckbourn having fun, and allowing others to do it for him, but it is still Ayckbourn exploring new uses for his Scarborough Theatre-in-the-Round.
Whether Dreams would translate to the West End I doubt, it may be too slight and too musically precious for a larger stage. All the cast can sing."
(Financial Times, 28 August 1992)
Beauty In Suburbia (by Benedict Nightingale)
"Cross Alan Ayckbourn, the bard of contemporary suburbia, with the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen, and what is the result? It might be Rapunzel letting her hair down the Telecom Tower for lovelorn commuters from Surrey to climb up. It could be the Giant, pounding along the M25 in pursuit of Jack the upwardly mobile salesman in his Sierra. In fact, in Dreams from a Summer House (Stephen Joseph Theatre) it is Beauty who crashes a party in a mock-Tudor house in Leatherhead, and the Beast who carries off the most obnoxious member of the host's family, presumably to a castle in the mountains of Esher.
The musical play that Ayckbourn has written with John Pattison eventually becomes a muddle, and a pretty sentimental muddle at that; but it contains some delightful incongruities. Picture the bewilderment of Chrissie (Christine Cox), a fussy, driven hostess, when she is confronted with a fairy-tale princess who can converse only in song. Imagine the consternation of her and everybody else when a vast, hairy troll suddenly pads across the lawn, throws her nasty daughter over his shoulder, and bounds back into the rose-bushes.
Ayckbourn has certainly had his elfin, whimsical moods in recent times. In both Woman in Mind and Invisible Friends he brought dream figures up out of his characters' unconsciousnesses and paraded them about the stage. But like all wishful fantasies, these turned out to have their destructive side. The difference here is that both Beauty and her Beast vastly improve the people who summon them up - and, hardly more explicably, themselves end up embodying the virtues of sexual equality and loving acceptance of one another's limitations. What has happened to the Ayckbourn who has spent his career wryly grieving over the unending war between Adam and Eve?
Actually, that honest if cynical chap is often visible in the evening's early stages. The main characters are Chrissie's daughter Amanda (Janie Dee), who has returned in a rage from her second honeymoon, and the young woman's first husband Robert (Dale Rapley), an artist who has borrowed the summer house to work on a book of fairy-stories. It is his bitter denunciation of women that brings Beauty (Jan Hartley) dancing prettily out of the mist, and his ex-wife's converse hatred that conjures up the Beast (Anthony Venditti). So far, so good.
What follows has its funny moments, but also its inscrutable ones. Not only must the audience cope with inconsistencies in the dramatic conventions Ayckbourn uses: they must buy some less-than-logical emotional developments. It is perfectly credible that the dreadful Amanda should turn the tables on a Beast who keeps her fettered and makes her sing idiot ditties about trilling linnets - but why, when she has wrecked the poor monster's ego by forcing him to fill his castle with do-it-yourself shelving, should she come home a new woman, brimming with affection for her feeble husband? Why should Robert, his misogyny confirmed by Beauty's somewhat unmotivated return to the Beast, suddenly succumb to the charms of Amanda's kid sister, whom he has spent the play assiduously belittling?
Oh well, that's fairy-tales for you. Maybe that's musicals for you, too. Some of the lyrics certainly confirm the old saw, that things too embarrassing to say should be sung. True, there is some pastiche in Pattison's music. I caught touches of Gilbert and Sullivan, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Andrew Lloyd Webber in the songs, and even Mozart in the recitative out of which they come melodiously bubbling. But if irony is intended at the evening's end, neither Ayckbourn's script nor his production has caught it.
Would you believe "Man has no right or duty to enslave or fetter beauty", throbbingly sung by an awesomely sincere ogre? No, nor did I; not from Alan Ayckbourn."
(The Times, 28 August 1992)
Dreams From A Summer House (by Alfred Hickling)
"Real-estate sharks might cotton on to this: timeshare castles in Fairyland. Alan Ayckbourn's new musical, set to compositions by John Pattison, is a dreamy summer diversion, not to be taken too seriously, in which the gentle twitter of a Leatherhead garden party is gate-crashed by Beauty pursued by the Beast.
Robert, a disaffected serious artist, vowed he would starve rather than turn to commercial commissions. That was before he got hungry. So now he is sulkily ensconced in his parents' summer house, drunkenly poring over children's illustrations.
Robert wants a woman - a genuine woman with a cookbook and bosoms, someone he can mould to his favourite fantasies, who won't trample him beneath "aerobic, biodegradable trainers." And bingo! Beauty appears, straight from the drawing board.
Meanwhile, the Beast abducts his appalling ex-wife Amanda, and is quickly reduced by her inviolable spleen to scurrying round the dungeon with the DIY kit.
Musicals would often be fine were it not for the singing. Real people do not sing. Especially not the British, particularly in Leatherhead. But Ayckbourn turns the artifice to hilarious advantage - Beauty cannot communicate except through song, reducing the mortals to writhing embarrassment. "What the hell," sighs Robert, crooning a conversation, "let's get certified together."
The music, however, is really rather good: Ayckbourn and Pattison following Sondheim's influence to produce flexible lines which substantiate the speech. Complex arrangements and recurrent motifs add effectively to the emotional flow, rather than bundling it into the traditional sequence of 'song to make you laugh', 'song to make you cry', and 'song to induce an uncontrollable nauseous seizure.'
The singing too is excellent: Jan Hartley's brilliantly accomplished Beauty, all eyes and teeth, Janie Dee's Amanda, jaws and claws, with Dale Rapley's rapacious Robert lolling about between them.
When he finally notices modern-girl Mel (a superbly easy performance by Judith McSpadden), Ayckbourn is in a mood to produce his happiest ending ever."
(Yorkshire Post, 28 August 1992)
All reviews are copyright of the respective publication.