If I Were You: World Premiere Reviews
A Delicious Identity Crisis (by Dominic Cavendish)
"Sir Alan Ayckbourn is already back where he belongs, his beloved theatre in the round in Scarborough, having made a mercifully steady recovery from the severe stroke he suffered in February. Even if If I Were You, written just before his illness, were no great shakes, you'd have to applaud his extraordinary dedication.
As it happens, play number 70 is much the best thing he's written and directed since 1998's Comic Potential. It's a blissfully funny comedy that's also filled with sadness, a devilishly simple theatrical idea that spins out all kinds of complex truths about human nature.
Ayckbourn's dramatic imagination is often seized by hypothetical scenarios and here the "what if?" could hardly be more far-fetched or elemental: one morning a married couple wake to find they've experienced a body swap.
Hollywood would make a big deal out of this gender switching scenario, but Ayckbourn handles the conceit with low-key restraint. The transformation doesn't occur until midway through, by which time we've got thoroughly acquainted with Mal and Jill Rodale. Mal (John Branwell) emerges from his bedroom duvet as a fully fledged provincial boor who makes his presence felt through unembarrassed grunts, belches and patriarchal groans. Meanwhile, Liza Goddard's trapped housewife survives her day on zombified autopilot, vaguely tending to her children.
Much of the initial humour is at the expense of male inadequacy, and, if anything, the wake-up role reversal, which involves "Mal" and "Jill" reluctantly agreeing fully to impersonate each other in order to pass undetected, sharpens the-sex-war satire still further. "Mal" manages the local department store with an appealingly maternal, fastidiously clean touch, while "Jill" is flummoxed by the most basic domestic tasks.
Yet this proves far more than a point-scoring exercise, and while the final moral of the story - both characters learn something about themselves and show the other how they might be - might sound predictable, it never feels that way when you're watching Ayckbourn's ingenious and touching game of double pretence. If I were him, I'd take it easy for the next few months. If I were a West End producer, I'd book this sharpish."
(Daily Telegraph, 19 October 2006)
If I Were You (by Jeremy Kingston)
"Alan Ayckbourn was once famous for writing his plays at a furious pace the day before the cast gathered for the first rehearsal. His timing has calmed a little recently and he finished If I Were You, his 70th, just before a stroke felled him earlier this year. The excellent news is that he has made so good a recovery that he was able to direct it and that he intends to start work soon on the 71st.
His subject here, as so often, is a marriage heading for the rocks. Neglected wife Jill is bored and frumpy; Mal, her bully of a husband, adores his married daughter and is hated by his schoolboy son. Because he is the manager of a house furnishings store, by a typical Ayckbourn device events at work in the bedding, kitchen and lounge departments can be intercut with crises at home in the lounge, kitchen and bedroom.
Not that these domestic crises evolve into confrontations during the play's first half, except for Mal's outraged refusal to let young Sam act in a Shakespeare play. No one mentions Mal's not-so-secret affair, or the bruises on daughter Christine's arms, obviously her consequence of resisting her lout of a husband in bed.
All this changes after Jill, settling for sleep at the end of a dreadful day, mutters: "God help us". Because God presumably does and, next morning, she wakes up in Mal's body and he in hers.
Liza Goddard, dolefully loyal as Jill in her own body, is now coarsely bewildered because Mal occupies it. John Branwell changes from philistine ranter to considerate manager and sweet-tempered father. The joke of one person's familiar phrases emerging from the other person's mouth may seem sources of obvious humour, but the jokes are cunningly prepared and explosive when they come.
Ayckbourn continues to take a dim view of husbands, and the play implies that if only men were more like women the world would be a happier place.
So, once again, serious social comments emerge through the laughter, an achievement that has always been Ayckbourn's special gift.
In one remarkable scene, he shifts swiftly to profundity when David Hartley's Sam rehearses the death speech of, inevitably, Thisbe, before his sister (Saskia Butler) and Goddard's father/mother. He plays it sincere, to heartbreaking effect. As well as everything else in this well-directed, neatly acted play, Ayckbourn is arguing for the power of theatre."
(The Times, 19 August 2006)
If I Were You (by John Peter)
"Behind the usual chatty Ayckbourn title, there lurks a hard, wise lower-middle-class comedy. Mal (John Branwell) is a lousy husband, useless around the house and having an affair. Jill (Liza Goddard) works as his wife and is not happy in the job. The marital bed looks like a coffin for two. Mal's relationship with his teenage son (David Hartley), who, to his disgust, is becoming interested in Shakespeare, is one of mutual belligerence. The marriage of his loudmouthed son-in-law (Andrew Brooke) to his daughter (Saskia Butler) doesn't look promising, and the two men boost each other's morale with frequent back-slapping. One day, Mal wakes up and finds he's become Jill, and she's become Mal. Will either become a better parent and spouse? Ayckbourn isn't preaching: he's being quizzical, generous and funny. This is his 70th play, and there's no sign of fatigue."
(Sunday Times, 29 October 2006)
If I Were You (by Alfred Hickling)
"Alan Ayckbourn's 70th play is a meditation on the unbridgeable gulf between men and women, continuing a theme developed throughout the previous 69. And, like many of his plays, it revolves around a central theatrical conceit - though in this case you wonder if it may be one bright idea too many.
In the first act, we find Mal and Jill Rodale staggering through the motions of a proto-typical Ayckbournian marriage - he's a boorish furniture salesman who leaves the toilet seat up; she's an oppressed housewife who scratches the car. Then one morning they wake up to find themselves inhabiting each other's bodies.
It is a trick employed for obvious comic potential, yet it seems unusually remiss of Ayckbourn to neglect to provide any valid reason for such a drastic personality transplant. Even something as simple as the couple getting out of different sides of the bed might explain it. Yet there's nothing apart from vague speculation about the intervention of aliens.
It is also baffling why Ayckbourn doesn't simply establish the body-swap business from the beginning. After all, if Franz Kafka had turned Gregor Samsa into a giant insect in chapter 20, you would miss the existentialist parable in bewilderment as to where such strange powers come from.
John Branwell and Lisa Goddard do everything required in terms of absorbing each other's physical characteristics yet struggle to make the process seem more than an extended acting exercise. The couple's reconciliation at the end is heartening, yet can it really be Ayckbourn, the veteran correspondent from the sexual battlefield, signing off with the platitude that if only men could be a bit more like women, and women a bit more like men, the world would be a much happier place?"
(The Guardian, 19 October 2006)
If I Were You (by Kevin Berry)
"How is Alan Ayckbourn challenging his actors in his latest play? The title is a clue. This is Ayckbourn's 70th play and his first since returning to work after his stroke. He has a weary wife, played by Liza Goddard, in a tedious marriage and a husband, John Branwell, who is unashamedly chauvinist. They avoid voicing their concerns but then Ayckbourn engineers a life-changing confrontation.
As the first act closes the pair wake to discover that he is inhabiting his wife's body and she has switched to his. Yes, this device has been used in many a feature film but here it is played very well. Branwell takes on his wife's persona without recourse to effeminate gestures.
Goddard really is Branwell in her body. She has great fun swearing, belching and punching their wife beating son-in-law but Ayckbourn avoids excessive farce. Furthermore he does not explain this switch, he just lets it happen.
Watching the couple's son, played by David Hartley, reacting to his new father is a joy. Branwell makes him a sandwich and helps him prepare for the school play, things his real father would never have done.
The in the round stage has three furnished rooms. Branwell has to work somewhere so Ayckbourn, the master strategist, has him managing a furniture showroom. The duvet is straightened, drink cans are flung into the kitchen waste bin and the family's home becomes a show-room. A neat solution making for a happy stage manager."
(The Stage, 2 November 2006)
If I Were You (by Charles Hutchinson)
"Given that the theme of If I Were You is a change of perspective brought about by dramatically altered circumstances, it might be presupposed that Alan Ayckbourn wrote it in response to suffering a stroke in February.
Not so. Sir Alan's 70th play was already in place and, after a summer of recuperation, he has returned to "the excitement of a rehearsal room full of people" and his favoured back-row eerie on press night.
He is back on familiar territory in his writing too: the particularly English world of lousy husbands and women turned mousy by men who never learn their lesson... until now.
This is one of those reviews where you wish you could ape the Ten O'Clock News in saying "if you don't want to know the results, look away now", but dear readers, your reviewer will desist from giving away the plot twist signposted in the play's title.
Roger Glossop's set forewarns of domestic dispute: a modern bedroom and dressing table, a kitchen sink, table and chairs, and a sitting room and sofa. Save for their all being on one level, it would be one of Ayckbourn's most anonymous settings on first sight.
However, the speedy use of doorways and mime for the opening and closing of curtains is a portent of farce as well as indication of the enervating influence of routine on downtrodden housewife and mother Jill Rodale (Liza Goddard, her blond hair newly darkened to match the mood).
What's more, without a single change of prop, the set is transformed into a showroom run by Jill's cheating husband, Mal (John Branwell), a curry-guzzling, porn-watching, heavy-coughing slug prone to smelling yesterday's socks. Again, this theatrical device chimes with the theme: looking at the same stage in two different ways.
The first half is the bleakest Ayckbourn drama ever, darker than an Ibsen comedy, full of lies, secrets and suppressed hurt, in a desire to avoid confrontation. Depressed Jill is unable to break out of her rut; daughter Chrissie (Saskia Butler) craves a return to work and is in self-denial over the bruises inflicted by husband Dean (Andrew Brooke), Mal's golden boy in the showroom. Sensitive soul Sam (David Hartley) hates his dad, who can't abide the prospect of his son performing in a Shakespeare play.
Where can it go from this point of gloom and despondency? Just before half-time comes a life and play-changing transformation, more in keeping with Ayckbourn's Christmas plays for children but this time with adult impact.
Amid the physical comedy and verbal tennis, you will see Liza Goddard in a new light, far beyond that hair colour change, as Ayckbourn has wonderful fun at the expense of male and female characteristics alike.
Will it alter anything? Divorce courts and Ayckbourn's past plays would suggest not, but it makes a change from marriage guidance counselling."
(The Press, 19 October 2006)
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