Alan Ayckbourn is the master of a good theatrical gimmick. Bedroom Farce is set across three separate bedrooms, Way Upstream takes place on a canal boat, requiring a small lakes worth of water on stage (famously flooding the stalls of the Lyttelton during its National Theatre run) and Confusions is a series of short scenes that transition from a living room to a series of benches, taking in a restaurant and a fête tent. In House & Garden, the gimmick is even more devilish. The piece is two plays, performed in sync across two performance spaces with the same cast acting in both. Watching it unfold is fascinating and it has been brazeningly revived by the wonderfully quaint Watermill Theatre.
House & Garden tells the story of serial womaniser Teddy Platt on a very important day. Not only is it the annual fête in his garden but also he is receiving a visit from Gavin Ryng-Mayne and the prospect of following in his family's footsteps as a Conservative MP beckons. There is also an affair to keep from exploding out into public and a wife and daughter who are not speaking to him. How this all unfolds, including a visit from a French actress, makes up the narrative of both House & Garden.
First and foremost you must commend any cast taking part in a production of this scale and with this degree of logistical challenge. The ensemble is universally strong, with individual actors each given moments to shine. The standout for House is Darrell Brockis' Gavin, a fantastic repugnant performance that dominates much of the second half of the play. In particular his scene with Sally, a commendable Grace Cheatle, has a powerful energy, mixing fear and a charged chemistry wonderfully. In Garden it is two performers who are barely present in House that standout. Gary Pillai is hilarious as Warn, surly in disposition and fleeting lines, while Sally Tatum's Lindy is heartbreakingly sweet. Some performances cross both plays and stand out in each, in particular Robert Mountford's Giles. A special note must go to Chloe France, the assistant director who took on the role of Pearl after a cast accident in a previous performance - she proved an adept replacement.
It is fascinating to watch the two plays back-to-back. While both are fine, richly humoured plays, with many classic tropes of Ayckbourn's canon on display, it is in piecing them together that they become something quite special. I picked House first and so the snippets of Garden we saw created a wonderful sense of confusion that is only explained by witnessing the second play in the evening. House feels like the play that can stand alone more easily, with some of the first half of Garden feeling like it is filling time. But after the interval much of the farcical action moves outside and is hilarious. It feels to truly appreciate this text you need to see both halves, maybe even on the same day (though this depends on your tolerance for Ayckbourn; mine is very high).
It is understandable why House & Garden is one of the lesser performed Ayckbourn pieces. It is a logistical nightmare, as can be seen by the presence of the assistant director taking on one of the parts. But it is one of the most singularly interesting pieces I have seen performed, exploring the nuances of a piece by offering two perspectives on it. The cast are marvellous, with several standout performances, and this day of Ayckbourn was a wonderful treat to have.