A testing time for marriage

Garden Party: Colin Baker as Peter and Peter Amory as Ray

The Final Test

Wolverhampton Grand

*****

IT is said that the average bloke only knows his wife has left him when he can't find a clean shirt – or clean plate - and the washing up has piled up in the sink.

In Peter's case, it was when the removal men had left with all the furniture and the new owners of what had been his home arrived to move in.

Not that he allowed that minor inconvenience to trouble him unduly as he continued to sit happily in the garden listening to his radio as England struggled along in the final Test at the Oval.

This is novelist and Radio 4 producer Chris Paling's first stage play and is a clever construction with a whole raft of different levels and emotions cemented together by some sharp comedy - and cricket.

It is no surprise that Paling is in his late 50s as much of the humour comes from observing the institution of marriage when it has become as comfortable and as worn as an old cardigan, part of life's furniture  - and that takes both time and a life's worth of experience.

I suspect that also means that it also a play which is appreciated more but an audience who, shall we say, are more mature theatregoers – not quite over the hill yet perhaps but with a pretty decent view of the other side.

As a result much of the laughter is of the done that, been there, how true, mine does that as well, variety.

Former Time Lord Colin Baker excels as the infuriating, decent, loyal, gentlemanly, selfish, stuck-in-a-rut Peter, the retired manager of an engineering firm, who lives for cricket and sees a Test match as almost a spiritual experience demanding his attention above all else. He is the sort of bloke who would be devastated if he knew he had hurt someone yet does it all the time with industrial strength insensitivity.

His long suffering wife Ruth, played with a sort of resigned, belligerent exasperation by Karen Ford - art teacher Miss Booth in Grange Hill - has sold the house from under him and perhaps Peter's interest in his wife and all that is going on around him – and his pet dog-like trust - can be summed up by the fact he signed all the paperwork without ever bothering to see what it was.

Into their lives come Ray, played by Peter Amory, remembered as Emerdale's Chris Tate, and Susan, played by Nicola Weeks who was seen in BBC's Bleak House, who have unwittingly bought their home.

England 35 for two . . . oh and my wife's left me. Peter contemplates the future, or at least the next session at the Oval.

Paling cleverly manages to blend together two ages of marriage with the doubts and fears of Ray and Susan who have been married 10 years, and trying for a baby for five, and the routine, unnoticing, caring, but hardly showing it, relationship of Peter and Ruth as they head towards 40 years of an unremarkable marriage which had seen two miscarriages – a fact that gives an element of common ground.

The youngsters have the added problem of an interfering mother placing an added burden on a marriage still trying to find its feet

Yet despite the dispute about finding the last occupant has taken up residence in the garden, both couples come to realise each has something to learn from the other.

Ray is basically a nice bloke who likes to get on with everyone and is all for an easy life in his marriage except finding Peter living among the petunias and his wife's reaction has started him thinking about where his marriage is and where it is going as he strikes up a friendship with his garden squatter.

Susan, who is a bit of a harridan, is determined to remove Peter and sees Ray as weak and ineffectual rather than kind and compassionate. She brings in the law in the shape of a constable played by Michael Garland who finds Peter's logic about trespass beyond him. Can you be trespassing if you owned the property when you entered and have not left?

HIDDEN TALENTS

But, in a bizarre twist, Garland's PC reveals hidden talents which only serve to infuriate Susan even more.

Everything comes to a head when Ruth, who has gone off to Bexhill-on-Sea with her lover to frolic naked in the waves summer and winter, paint and write poetry, returns and both couples have to face up to who they are - and we find Susan is just as vulnerable and uncertain as the rest.

The action all takes place in a back garden of a rather dowdy suburban house. It is a clever set although the house is perhaps not as up-market as the script might suggest.

At times the play is touching and has some serious, poignant moments which must strike chords about couples unable to have children, about caring and about relationships but it is also well observed, funny and gloriously witty without resorting to old jokes and one liners from some Bumper Joke Book.

It is skillfully written, beautifully acted and a pleasure to watch – if a little uncomfortable for the men in the audience, most of whom probably had to suffer endless “you do that” comments on the way home. And sadly, we probably do.

Roger Clarke

Meanwhile from the Vauxhall End . . .

****

CAN you imagine moving into a new home and finding the previous owners had left something behind in the garden - in this case an abandoned husband.

That's the unlikely plot in the last offering of Ian Dickens Productions' summer play season, but it works extremely well, with former Doctor Who Colin Baker in blistering form as cricket-loving hubby, Peter.

He's so tied up listening to a radio commentary of the latest Test match, sprawled on a comfy chair in the back garden of their suburban home, he can scarcely believe it when his wife of 40 years, Ruth (Karen Ford) reveals she has sold the house and is off to live with her lover in Bexhill-on-sea.

And when the new owners Ray (Peter Amory) and Susan (Nicola Weeks) turn up he refuses to move, so they call the police.

That leads to a hilarious scene when the local bobby (Michael Garland) accepts Peter's explanation that he can't be trespassing as he has never left the premises, and the ballroom dancing enthusiast officer then demonstrates his tango skills after hearing music on the portable radio.

The crazy situation uncovers problems in the young couple's marriage, but there's a happy ending all round in Chris Paling's skillfully written play - enjoying a world premiere – to 21-07-12 

Paul Marston

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