Set in the Royal Hotel, Scarborough, the action unfolds across three centuries under the watchful eye of two hotel porters, the wry, phlegmatic Gander (Adrian McLoughlin), who has, in some sense literally, seen it all before, and the younger, excitable Pestle (Dominic Hecht). The consistent presence of these characters is a lovely touch, suggesting a certain continuity of human nature as observed by those in the hospitality industry, who often catch glimpses of things their guests would rather keep hidden. Meanwhile, a lively cross section of society drinks, dances, lies and bickers its way through a series of adventures and heartaches punctuated by a couple of not only forgivable, but completely entertaining, musical interludes. This is definitely an ensemble piece with most actors playing a character from every period, so while Sarah Moyle’s painfully hearty Mrs Loveless and Terence Booth’s gloriously obnoxious Lord Foppington stand out for me, the difficulties of repeatedly switching characters were consistently beautifully managed by all the cast. The north/south divide is a consideration but not a distraction (Katie Foster’s provincial dreamer Miss Hoyden yearns, in broad Yorkshire, to experience the joys of London), and a sense of history and continuation pervades the whole play.
Fans of the ever reliable Ayckbourn will not be disappointed: A Trip to Scarborough is polished, witty, and gently affecting. The cosiness which characterises much of Ayckbourn’s work is also evident, a comforting veneer of self-conscious middle class good humour papering over the seedier, grislier, and more tragic of the play’s themes. While Ayckbourn’s dialogue can sometimes seem a little glib, the neat plots and polished delivery create an atmosphere which can be simultaneously chilling and charming: a very accomplished piece of audience manipulation. At once contemporary and old-fashioned, A Trip to Scarborough is at face value delightful, un-fattening comfort-theatre, which on closer inspection reveals a poignant and familiar human commentary.