Bedroom Farce: a Portrait of Another Time

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amy matysio & ron pederson photo by cylla von tiedemann

Soulpepper Theatre brings us stories from across the centuries and the Globe, and it is continually fascinating and thrilling to see how relevant some of these, often very old, plays are to our lives in contemporary Toronto. Other times, as is the case with Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce (1976), plays become museum-style snapshots of days gone by and it is less clear what is left for this play to tell us about our own time, but it allows for an interesting perspective on the past, with the benefit of hindsight.  

The play is set in three separate bedrooms belonging to three interconnected couples and centres around the young couple, Trevor and Susannah, whose bedroom is unseen. Trevor and Susannah are near the brink of disaster in their marriage. Susannah is in the midst of a mental breakdown, full of self-loathing and utterly lacking in confidence. Trevor, moody and self-involved, is a hapless klutz of a man-child whose good intentions are continually thwarted by his inability to get out of his own head and really connect with the people he cares about. Despite their marital problems, Trevor and Susannah descend on Malcolm and Kate’s blithe housewarming party and it gets blown to smithereens when Trevor ends up kissing his ex-girlfriend, Jan, in Malcolm and Kate’s bedroom. Jan’s husband, Nick, is home in bed with a serious backache. Trevor’s parents, Ernest and Delia, are home celebrating their anniversary, when Susannah arrives, hysterical, hoping to spend the night.

The most successful farcical elements of Bedroom Farce are the silly physical comedy moments directed by Ted Dykstra. There are some great moments from Alex McCooeye’s Nick as he struggles to protect his aching back, while finding himself in a myriad of strange and difficult positions. There is also a great pile-on fight scene between Ron Pederson’s Trevor, Amy Matysio’s Susannah, Katherine Gauthier’s Kate and Gordon Hecht’s Malcolm that is beautifully ridiculous, as well as continuous gags pertaining to the party guests’ coats, which pile up on Malcolm and Kate’s bed.

The strange thing about this play is that I found myself continually oscillating between feeling distanced enough from the characters, especially the three younger couples, that I was able to delight at the comedy at their expense, and then empathizing with them, perhaps at the expense of the farce. Pederson’s Trevor at times is so earnest and oblivious to the fact that he is bulldozing through other people’s lives that it becomes pitiable. Susannah is clearly grappling with significant mental health issues, and Matysio can be quite heartbreaking as she claws for help amongst a group of people who clearly don’t understand her.

Much of the situational humour of this play hinges on the specifics of England in the mid 1970s, where it was written and premiered. It compares an older couple, Ernest and Delia, who would have come of age during The Blitz of London, to the Baby Boomer Generation, at a time when Second Wave Feminism, the Sexual Revolution and Civil Rights Movements were creating a chasm between the experience of people like Trevor and that of his parents. In this context Susannah’s meltdowns poke fun at women being free (and encouraged) to examine and explore their emotions and to share them with a therapist, as later dramatized in Annie Hall (1977), Kate’s desire to be more sexually “interesting,” referencing the “fancying of other girls,” alludes to loosening attitudes toward non-heterosexual acts, and Trevor’s listlessness captures the stereotype of a 1970s youth culture with their heads stuck in the clouds (of pot smoke). Malcolm and Kate struggle to create an equal partnership. Malcolm wants his wife to bend to his wishes, but Kate is adamant that her opinion is just as valid. At the same time, Delia and Ernest are xenophobic and set in their ways. You might even argue that, even in 1976, they are clinging to an image of Great Britain that no longer exists. None of these experiences are familiar enough that the majority of us would recognize ourselves in these characters and and laugh. In fact, time has made it more difficult to find humour at someone fetishizing lesbians or making light of a woman’s self esteem issues or a husband’s casual misogyny. Instead, it becomes stunningly obvious how much the World has changed. Even the chasms between the generations, with grandparents now Skyping with grandchildren, and fashion trends encouraging people to eternally chase their youth, seem drastically smaller than they were even forty years ago. This doesn’t necessarily make Bedroom Farce worse than it was when it premiered, but it makes watching it a profoundly different experience.

Katherine Gauthier brings a genuine sweetness to Kate and a fierce determination. Her chemistry with Hecht’s Malcolm is fun and sensual, which gives the relationship a nice sense of depth. Hecht gives Malcolm both the delightful mischief of youth, as well as the sulking. Caitlin Driscoll’s Jan has more nuance in her scenes with Pederson’s Trevor than with McCooeye’s Nick, and her affection for the former and annoyance with the latter is a bit too convenient a binary. I wanted to have a sense of what Nick and Jan were like when Nick wasn’t a cranky invalid. Derek Boyes’ Ernest and Corrine Koslo’s Delia are much less clearly defined by their place and time, and therefore emerge as the most three dimensional individuals. There is so much subtlety and familiarity in their relationship. When it seems as though they have grown distant and bored of one another, the tenderness between them suddenly shines through. Boyes is excellent as the much put-upon Ernest, who must sleep in the damp guest bedroom when Susannah bursts in, and Koslo exudes so much charm and playfulness, it is easy to see why he puts up with her.

There are a few wandering British accents that I’m sure will get nailed down properly as the run progresses. The Britishness serves Koslo and Boyes the most, who get to revel a little in it, but seems to sometimes weigh the others down.

There are those who argue that the staging of this sort of Museum-Piece is a waste, or that it runs the risk of becoming Dead Theatre, as Peter Brook would say. If that is your opinion, Bedroom Farce is not the play for you. Yet, for me, there is something really interesting in seeing a play that is so changed by contemporary perspectives. There is still humour in it, but there is also pathos, unexpected and strange, and instead of a comedy that holds up a mirror to society, it holds up a photograph of another world that once was new and suddenly seems so very far away.

Soulpepper’s Production of Bedroom Farce plays at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House) until June 20th. For tickets call 416.866.8666, visit the box office or go online to www.soulpepper.ca