Manchester Theatre Awards

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Private Fears in Public Places (GM Fringe)

Alan Ayckbourn
Dick & Lottie
The Salford Arts Theatre, Salford
04 July 2018 to 06 July 2018

The Company Dick& Lottie make their first visit to Manchester with Alan Ayckbourn’s Private Fears in Public Places. Since their foundation in 2004 Dick & Lottie have produced almost 40 Ayckbourn plays and, although they turned professional only this year, have secured the approval of the author who promotes their work via his official website.

In Private Fears in Public Places a character opines public places are safe. Well, perhaps one might be guarded from physical harm but, the play suggests, emotional damage is still a distinct possibility. Six characters, all in some way seeking an emotional connection, wander through the play bumping into each other and making life-changing choices. A disgraced solider and his fiancée have to consider the possibility that, rather than marriage, they might be better off separating. A former wild child who survived a sexual assault finds herself despising the timid life she is now forced to lead. Her brother is, unknowingly, tricked into playing a cat and mouse game of sexual politics with a colleague. A gentle homosexual finds himself having to care for the father who loathes his sexual choice. A devout Christian enacts Old Testament style revenge on her victims in a most unusual manner.

Private Fears in Public Places is a very ambitious play to tackle with limited Fringe resources. Ayckbourn described it as a ‘film for the stage’ and goes so far as to open and close the play with the noise of a film camera running and a voice-over giving directions as in a film script. Such an approach requires rapid scene changes to achieve the cinematic quality required.

Director John Cotgrave tackles the need for speed by spilling the action off the stage into the auditorium. The audience is seated on three sides around a series of mini-sets (hotel bar, living room and so on) that allows the cast to slip swiftly from one scene to another. Even so it is possible to spot moments where even greater speed might be achieved if a wordless scene on one part of the stage took place while verbal exchanges were made on another.

The comedy often comes out of dark situations where it is difficult to raise a laugh (in this play drunks tend to be pathetic rather than funny). The cast shine best, therefore, in the more dramatic scenes, where the comedy is underplayed. The brittle exterior of Laura Johnson’s posh Nicola crumbling as she goes through old love letters; Richard McArtney‘s Ambrose ruefully reflecting on his life - best of all is the look of baffled confusion flickering across Maria Sykes’s face to suggest Charlotte, the manipulative prick-tease, might actually be suffering from a mental illness rather than just being vindictive.

Private Fears in Public Places does not quite fulfill the high ambitions for the play but is a respectful interpretation of a demanding show.

Reviewer: David Cunningham