Monday, 4 May 2015

Review: Way Upstream at the Chichester Festival Theatre

Way Upstream 
Chichester Festival Theatre
Reviewed on  Saturday 2nd May 2015

It must be something to do with the area’s boating heritage, because the Chichester Festival Theatre certainly has a thing about water. The 2011 production of Singin’ in the Rain saw some audience members given a soaking and in 2013, Tim Firth’s comedy Neville’s Island recreated an area of the Lake District with real water on stage and the cast members getting drenched.

Now comes this revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s classic comedy that sees the venue undertake its most technically ambitious production yet. The stage is flooded with 62,000 litres of water on which floats a real cabin cruiser where all the action takes place. A cabin cruiser that moves, as well. Oh, and at the end of the play it rains.

It’s an astonishing achievement by designer Ben Stones and the theatre’s technical crew and it also shows why this is only the second revival of the play since its premiere at the National Theatre in 1982.

Not that Way Upstream is purely an exercise in wowing the audience with spectacle. It’s a sublimely written black comedy that superbly showcases Ayckbourn’s ear for dialogue and his astute understanding of the foibles of human nature. 

Two couples: the constantly bickering Keith and June (played by Peter Forbes and Sarah Parish) and the wimpy Alistair and his timid wife Emma (played by Jason Hughes and Jill Halfpenny) set out on a boating holiday with the intention of reaching the ominously named Armageddon Bridge. None of them has any boating experience, although the bullying Keith appoints himself skipper despite his only knowledge of river etiquette being taken from a book he keeps close to hand.

What can possibly go wrong?

Well, quite a lot as you can imagine. The first act is pure farce as the hapless crew lurch from one crisis to the next and tempers become more and more frayed in what is a wonderfully entertaining display of physical comedy complimented by a razor sharp script. And it’s all superbly marshalled by director Nadia Fall.

This being Ayckbourn though, things are going to turn dark. When the useless Alistair runs the boat aground, rescue comes in the shape of local man of the river Vince (played by Jason Durr) whose knowledge and expertise immediately puts the bungling holidaymakers in his debt. An invitation to a thank-you drink turns into a longer stay and things begin to turn very dark indeed.

To say any more would give too much away, but this a master class in plot development, while performances are without exception impeccable. 

The Chichester Festival Theatre has been enormously successful in recent years with transfers to the West End. Simple logistics mean that there are only a few venues that could mount this play, but it would be shame if this hugely entertaining production didn’t reach a wider audience.

Reviewed by Tony Peters

Way Upstream runs at the Chichester Festival Theatre until Saturday 16th May 2015
Please visit for further information and tickets.

Photo Credit: Simon Annand

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