Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present

New Vic theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme, until Saturday 26 October

It’s fifty years since Alan Ayckbourn first said he was planning to write a farce that started at the end and worked backwards to end at the beginning. He gave it the reversed working title Ecraf. And now he’s finally done it. He’s changed the title to Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present and he offers it to us like a gift – considerately planned, beautifully wrapped, and guaranteed to please.

With 83 plays under his belt,  Ayckbourn is clearly a generous giver. The astonishing thing is that this latest offering is so full of surprises. It’s a delightful entertainment; a present to cherish.

The first birthday – the ending with which we begin – belongs to 80 year-old Micky. His wife Meg lays out tea, and their son Adrian duly joins them to help celebrate, bringing along his new girlfriend Grace, who he met at a Church social.  

Grace (Naomi Petersen) and Adrian (Jamie Baughan) Images by Tony Bartholemew

Micky is convinced his son is a Lothario who makes insatiable demands on his long string of sexual partners. Church-mousy Grace is Adrian’s first girlfriend since his wife Faith left him and when she recounts how they met — “He told me he’d lost faith” – Micky feels honour bound to warn her of his son’s rapacious predilections.

You only need to look at Adrian once to realise the absurdity of this attributed reputation. And this is the beauty of the structure: as we work backwards through birthdays 15, 25, and 38 years ago, the clues come thick and fast as to how the reputation was won. They feed our satisfaction with the narrative in a way that intensifies the humour in the delicious surprises when they come.

This being Ayckbourn, they also deepen our sympathy for poor Adrian, a victim of his hormones from any perspective.

The big surprises are largely in the hands of Naomi Petersen, who plays all four of Adrian’s ‘partners’ at the birthdays in question, from gawky teenager with a painful crush to jaded prostitute with a wild chicken impersonation. She handles them with admirable versatility and brio, and thoroughly deserves the many laughs she gets.

Jamie Baughan’s Adrian is also finely played. With a physique so unlikely that of a sexual superman, he feeds the falsity of his reputation with a painful innocence  – never more so than in his hilarious scenes with the sex worker. Naturally, she’s called Charity. The very first of his sub-sexual encounters, at the end of the play, is called Hope.

Adrian with Micky (Russel Dixon)

Russel Dixon and Jemma Churchill, playing Adrian’s parents, provide the necessary framing while earning plenty of laughs of their own. We even get a fair sense of Adrian’s sister Sonia and uncle Hal, though neither of them appear on stage.

This new play is a worthy companion to Ayckbourn’s classic Season’s Greetings from 1980. Together in a mini-season this month, they’re an admirable way to celebrate the long and wonderful association between the playwright and director and The New Vic.