Alan Ayckbourn’s play ‘Better Off Dead’ is, as advertised, “a comedy of confusion about a grumpy old man who might not be so grumpy after all.”
Set in Yorkshire, Algy Waterbridge, acted by Christopher Goodwin, is struggling to write his 33rd novel from his Detective Chief Inspector, Tommy Middlebrass series. The play begins with a dark stage as Algy is typing on his laptop. The ingenious twist is when the figments of his story appear on the outer stage, and begin executing Algy’s story as he passionately narrates.
Algy’s figments, DCI Tommy Middlebrass and DS Gemma Price have varying personality traits, which shine throughout the play, despite their being a team.
Russell Dixon gave a stand-out performance as Tommy. His distinguished Yorkshire accent, relatable jokes and sexist remarks had the crowd roaring with laughter. There were a few instances, particularly during his longer speeches, where his accent was difficult to understand, and at these points the crowd would persevere silently, hoping that they would soon. His co-worker, Gemma, played by Naomi Peterson, challenged Tommy just enough to portray a friendly but conflicting relationship between the two.
When Algy was interrupted from his writing, the stage lighting changed instantly on cue, moving the set from fiction and into reality. These lighting changes clarified the difference between the two realms for the entirety of the play, ensuring that they both were separated and not at all confused with one another.
Christopher Goodwin’s acting is second to none: Algy is as grumpy in personality as he is animated as an author/narrator. Algy’s various rants at his secretary, Thelma Bostock; the ridiculously unprofessional journalist, Gus Crewe (who is presented with an equally ridiculous haircut), and his smarmy publisher Jason Ratcliffe, are pure comedy. The expletives he used combined with his sarcastic comments and seemingly impenetrable heart are a winning combination for crowd pleasing.
Furthermore, Algy’s wife Jessica, played by Eileen Battye, was another impressionable actress, despite having a minor role. Her progressive illness, emphasised by her tendencies to wander and go missing and mistake her husband for a drainage worker, and her confusion about the present day, is portrayed both realistically and respectfully.
Liz Jadav played Algy’s secretary, Thelma Bostock, and featured in the majority of the scenes. Jadav played her character well – Thelma was clearly intended to be supportive of Algy and help with his requests – but her performance was exaggerated at times. I found it difficult to distinguish whether Thelma was supposed to be over the top. Her character did add comedy through her persistence to impress when the journalist, played by Leigh Symonds, and Algy’s publisher, acted by Laurence Pears, visited the author at his home.
As the first in-the-round theatre in Europe, built in 1986, The New Vic alone promises a unique and exciting theatrical experience. The arena inspired layout provided the audience with a birds-eye view of the stage, while remaining compact enough for ticket holders to feel intimate and personal with the characters during the performance.
At first glance, Manchester-based freelance designer, Michael Holt’s set design was very basic, if not a little quaint and old fashioned: an octagonal platform occupied the centre stage and it was clear immediately that this resembled our character author, Algy Waterbridge’s writing room. The outer and lower stage constituted an outdoor area, with a bench, and felt patches of grass and flowerbeds scattered across the floor. Branches and foliage hung over the garden area; the finishing touch to an already cosy set.
The Better off Dead set would not have been anywhere near as challenging for Holt as others he has previously worked on have been: when designing for Alan Ayckbourn’s Surprises production, he successfully designed a three floor Victorian house on one level stage, with staircases between floors. The apparent lack of enthusiasm in the set is therefore quite disappointing, when compared to Holt’s previous designs, and it’s surprising that Ayckbourn also didn’t attempt to stretch theatrical boundaries, as he often does when using Holt.
With only a short summary of the play available online and in the provided programmes, theatre goers have very little to go off what the play will actually be like. What I will say is that the summary is easily misunderstood; it leaves a lot to the imagination, and the element of mystery involved most probably ensures that you enjoy the production even more so.
While the play generated lots of laughter from the audience, there were also times when they watched on with apparent confusion and, occasionally, boredom. If anything, the play was rather slow starting off, but intensified quickly towards the end, climaxing in the most heartfelt and unexpected way.
Better off Dead lives up to comedic expectations, and also provides a heartwarming experience for theatre goers. All those who watch the play will guarantee that they left with an especially important message in mind: never take your loved ones for granted.