Time of My Life by the Midland Players: Review

Despite its failings – incompetent staff, dodgy-looking food – the Stratton family always return to the same restaurant. “Anniversaries, birthdays – I don’t know why.” Time of My Life was written by Alan Ayckbourn in 1992 and the financial woes that plague father Gerry, the head of a large Northern building firm, and the rest of the family, serve as an astute meditation on today’s credit crunch, just as it did on Thatcherite decadence a few decades ago.

When the play opens, all seven characters – the rich Stratton parents, sons, Adam and Glyn, and their respective girlfriends – are gathered around the restaurant table, bickering. It is mother Laura’s 54th birthday. The restaurant owner – a hapless Italian named Calvinu – is dancing around his guests, lamenting the fact that nobody wants to try his “delicious Italian coffee”.

The young couples soon rush off stage, which opens up a candid dialogue in which the parents discuss the various failures of the family, including their misgivings over their children and their choice of partner. Occasionally the scene splits off to provide glimpses into the past and future: Adam’s burgeoning relationship with girlfriend Maureen a few weeks prior to the birthday, and Glyn’s failing marriage to wife Stephanie, which is demonstrated over the course of a year.  Every scene is set in Calvinu’s restaurant.

The play is never hysterically funny, but nor is it intended to be. Instead, the humour envelops you like a big cosy jumper: witty and un-offensive, providing a welcome reprieve from the heavier emotional drama. The barbed rapport between parents Laura and Gerry certainly benefitted from the assured performances of older actors (the student venue rarely plays host to anyone past their 20’s). Margaret Stone’s two-faced performance as Laura Stratton was a personal highlight. Sickly sweet to her enemy’s faces, ice cold witch behind their backs – the transformation was enough to make your skin crawl.

The scenes with the young couples contrasted intriguingly. Despite their lack of mutual interests – Adam is a pseudo-artist snob and Maureen a ditzy hairdresser – their chemistry felt believable. This was mostly thanks to Chrissy Almond’s bubbly and quirky portrayal of Maureen. I felt uplifted as I watched their relationship blossom, but it was genuinely moving to witness the disintegration of Glyn and Stephanie’s marriage. Presumably husband and wife (both actors share the surname, ‘North’), the bond between the two was tangible. Although cocksure Glyn isn’t a particularly sympathetic character, I wanted his marriage to succeed. It was heartrending to hear Glyn repeatedly excuse his suspicious absences, and Stephanie’s muted response.

Phil Ashton took on the challenging role of playing the entire restaurant staff – incompetent and rude waiters, the sentimental host. Each character was played with confidence – a crucial element for comedic parts – thankfully leaving no need to cringe and hide behind one’s hands as a result of a flat joke. His frequent interruptions allowed some refreshing levity during the emotionally touching sections. My only criticism is that it wasn’t always obvious which character he was supposed to be playing, despite a slight alteration of costume. Perhaps a change of accent would have made the distinction a little clearer.

A tiny bit more effort with the program would have been nice. It can’t have been cheap to produce, so it feels like a mini-biography of Ayckbourn lifted straight from Wikipedia was a bit of a waste – but that’s nit-picking. I thoroughly enjoyed the Midland Players’ production of Time of My Life, and left the drama studio with the poignant complexities of family still swirling around my head. As restaurant owner Calvinu might say on sampling a delicious meal – bravo.

4/5

Review by Nick Willoughby

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