Ayckbourn first attacked the vacuity of celebrity in his significant 1988 play Man of the Moment, throughout which he held back few punches. By comparison the writing and structure of Drowning on Dry Land can seem just as many misses as direct hits, for all that though it contains its share of entertainment value which this production directed by Guy Retallack does its level best to exploit.
Charlie Conrad has it all – the wife, vast house, endorsement deals, TV appearances, children – as a result of his ability to be a failure at everything he tries, from middle-distance running to a contestant on the latest game show. He just freezes, but the public love him for it. Life is going swimmingly well until he is caught in a compromising position with a starstruck and sexually confident children's entertainer, Marsha Bates, aka Mr Chortles the clown. From that moment Conrad's world unravels before our very eyes. His manager tries damage limitation, but cannot avert the threat of legal action and an immediate suit for divorce. In losing everything of material concern, Conrad is left with his most valuable attribute: nothing.
Christopher Coghill's portrayal of Conrad is intentionally a blank, someone you would instantly forget – surely the opposite of a celebrity, or is it? Ayckbourn never really answers the question, along with a few others: is Marsha / Mr Chortles exploited or does she exploit to further her own ends; and, in the end, is celebrity something that we (the audience) can no longer live without, try as we might to play down our guilty pleasure? The Jermyn Street Theatre's intimate space is ideally suited to confronting these questions. Still trying to decide at what point a woman who wears male undergarments becomes a man in legal terms though...! The argument, along with the comedy bloomers, deserves to be inadmissible in court.
Helen Mortimer's Marsha plays well against Emma Swain's Linzi, Conrad's wife, just as Russell Bentley's portrayal of hotshot lawyer Simeon Diggs wins the argument hands down against his counterpart. Though each has at some point a comment to make on Charlie Conrad's situation, arguably none has more to say than his agent Jason Ratcliffe. In playing Ratcliffe, Les Dennis must surely have reflected long and hard on the fickle nature of the fame game, though mixing understatement in his portrayal with oily managerial charm.
Other critics in the regular press might have carped more about the real worth of the play, but on exiting the theatre my survey said that it proved a hit with the audience. The production runs until 19 March 2011.
Image credit: Ferdaus Shamim