Life of Riley opens tomorrow May 5th, and plays till June 5th at The Old Globe in the middle of Balboa Park, San Diego, California. It is the US premiere of Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s 74th play. I am playing the role of ‘Colin’.
Balboa Park is a rectangular section of 1200 acres (down from its original 1400 when founded in 1868) just north of the downtown section of the city. It’s topography spans two canyons, and it’s flora includes Eucalypts, Pines, and flowers of acrylic intensity. It also houses a zoo with a long ariel ski lift for viewing, a bowling green, 15 museums, an enormous Morton Bay Fig tree 120 feet tall, and ‘the great globe itself’ which now sports three performance spaces. I’m housed at the The Park Manor Hotel on the park’s north west corner and it’s a lucky thing to stroll though a piece of paradise every day to go to work.
Our play treats on George Riley suddenly diagnosed as having only six months to live. And as our director, Rick Seer, dryly observed in his opening remarks: “Really, what could be funnier?” George never appears. He lives (and finally dies – I’m giving nothing away here) offstage, and the play is really about the effect the situation has on his close friends.
As Colin the character, Colin the actor gets to say one of the funniest lines ever written in the English language, viz:
‘I can’t say I’m very taken with this marmalade.’
Hysterical isn’t it?
We open on a fragment from a scene from Alan Ayckbourn’s first commercial success (not his first play, but his first big hit). Relatively Speaking was written in 1965 and produced in London’s West End in 1967. And Act 1 scene 2 of Relatively Speaking opens with Philip uttering the aforementioned marmalade line to his wife Sheila over breakfast.
Act 1 scene 1 of Life of Riley opens with my chap, Colin, running lines with his wife Kathryn prior to their first rehearsal of a local amateur production in which they are playing Philip and Sheila. The action of Life of Riley takes place between May and November of one year, and from first rehearsal of Relatively Speaking to the last of three performances is a mere 4 or 5 months. Sir Alan has sprinkled this part of the storyline with subversive humour to do with both amateur and professional backstage life. The fact that he is referencing one of his own plays written 45 years ago is a witty retrospective.
Ayckbournian text is a delight to play, and there are some scenes in the cannon of his work which I think are actor-proof – the deck chairs scene in Round and Round the Garden for example when Ruth, driven to exhasperation exclaims: ‘How would it be Tom, if I took all my clothes off and rolled around naked on the grass my spectacles flashing messages of passion and desire at you? How would that be, Tom?’
Tom’s reply: ‘Good Lord … have to be carefull where you rolled on this grass.’
San Diego is full of Britons. A mile or so from where I’m writing this, there’s an establishment called The Shakespeare Pub. They sell popular British beers and things like Fish n’ Chips, and Sausage Rolls, and Digestive Biscuits. For a Brit far from home, it’s a tonic to go and get an armful of comfort food and proper tea. The establishment has been in business for some 11 years and does brisk trade, but the ocassion of the recent Royal Wedding was their busiest week-end to date.
British exports have traditionally found lively markets in the States, not least in the large crop of costume dramas which retail the accent. But language and accent is always changing. The cut-glass vowels of the BBC circa 1940, gradually gave way to admit regional variations by the 1980s. And now even Royals use a mottled ‘t’ and the odd ‘estuarine’ vowel. Our vocal coach here at The Old Globe pointed out several corrupted vowels in my speech – the result of living America for more than a decade.
Accent work has improved with global communications. These days we often see films where Brits or Aussies play American, and Americans play Brits. Kudos here to my fellow cast members doing the best accent work I’ve ever heard in this country. And as a British actor who once played American in the Great State of Kentucky, at The Humana Festival of New American Plays, I’m able to say such an undertaking can be a challenge.
The current season of plays here is loosley connected in themes of familial dysfunction. The smash hit Rafta Rafta about two families of Anglo-Indians living in the north of England and having marital trouble, closed last week. The mighty August: Osage County telling us how things can get out of hand in Oklahoma, opens next week. Even the Shakespeare Festival this season includes The Tempest – another family-gone-wrong story.
But middle class England on the verge of a divorce is ground that Ayckbourn has mapped and chronicled like no other. And this is where the marmalade line and subsequent scene is so brilliant, being a distillation of unexpressed, unheard, relationship-need-in-marriage passed through the filter of English nicety. But where this playwright has previously experimented with sleights of theatrical form such as variation plays like Sisterly Feelings and Intimate Exchanges, time plays like Communicating Doors, multi-space plays like A Small Family Business, stereo plays like House And Garden, to name but a few; here he contents himself with relatively mild theatrical eccentricities like; his title character never appearing, a setting which is multi-functional and overlapping, and variations on the marmalade line (the scene is played more than once), culminating in the equally hillarious and devastating:
‘If you ask me, we’d have been better off with jam!’