Drowning On Dry Land: World Premiere Reviews

This page contains a selection of reviews from the world premiere production of Alan Ayckbourn's Drowning On Dry Land at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in 2004. All reviews are the copyright of the respective publication and / or author.

Drowning On Dry Land (by John Peter)
"Alan Ayckbourn's coruscatingly acid and funny play is an ode to failure, or rather to the English fascination with failure. Disgraced politicians, retired East End torturers, perjured novelists, discredited journalists, cocky quiz-show cheats, drink-sodden football stars, ruined sexpots, rude barmen, faded It girls, foul-mouthed football managers, failed pop singers, semi-articulate nonentities: all those personalities without a personality who are taken up and eaten alive by television shows and tabloid photographers, while you sit and watch with a mixture of moral superiority and schadenfreude, both Peeping Tom and magistrate. Ayckbourn's hero, if that is the word, is Charlie Conrad (Stephen Beckett), an inept amateur sportsman whose disaster-prone incompetence and innocent stupidity endear him to chat-show and quiz-show producers, and hence to that great moral and intellectual tribunal, the British public. The point about Charlie is that he turns out to be a flop as a failure. He's no good at it. He's a failed failure. He gets trapped in a sexual-assault case, and even his slick lawyer (Stuart Fox), a cross between Max Clifford and a hyena, can't quite save him. Ayckbourn's writing is, like his direction, nimble, precise and deceptively merry. You laugh, but he reminds you that your laughter is tainted by an indecent relief: it's Charlie in free fall, not you. And, as a total failure, he may be ready for a comeback."
(Sunday Times, 9 May 2004)

Drowning On Dry Land (by Michael Billington)
"Dramatists need to take themselves, as well as us, by surprise. While Alan Ayckbourn's 66th play is a premeditated attack on what Robert Hughes called 'the psychotic cult of celebrity', it achieves lift-off with a scene almost tangential to its theme: one that offers the best expose of legal trickery since Portia invaded the Venetian courtroom.
Ayckbourn's hero, Charlie, is one of those people who has achieved media fame without any visible talent. A failed athlete and hopeless quiz contestant, he has risen on the strength of his charismatic ineptitude. But, after seven golden years, his marriage is in trouble, he is prey to a destructive TV interviewer and, worst of all, he is caught in a compromising situation with the female clown who is supplying the entertainment at his kids' birthday party.
This is not Ayckbourn's first assault on the sickness of the celebrity culture:
Man of the Moment (1988) was an even more bilious attack on media glorification of villains. But, where that was driven by genuine anger, here there is something a touch diagrammatic about Ayckbourn's satire on the fame game; you know that what goes up will inevitably come down. And, despite hints of Posh and Becks in the portrait of Charlie's marriage, there is something so innocuous about the hero that you feel a butterfly is being broken on a wheel.
Ayckbourn's play goes into another dimension with a dazzling second-act scene in which Charlie's whizz-kid lawyer interviews the clown who is making accusations of indecent assault. What makes the scene so brilliant is its delicate moral balance. We know that the charges against Charlie have an
Oleanna-like exaggeration.
At the same time the lawyer, played with Carmanesque forensic skill by Stuart Fox, seizes on the woman's working disguise as a Mr Chortles to strip her of all dignity. This scene shows Ayckbourn at the top of his game, in that character drives situation. But even if the rest of the play too neatly demonstrates the slippery transience of fame, Ayckbourn's production makes ingenious use of Roger Glossop's garden-folly setting, and there are strong performances from Stephen Beckett as the blankly charming hero and from Sarah Moyle as the sinister clown with squeaking, Chekhovian shoes."
(The Guardian, 5 May 2004)

Drowning On Dry Land (by Ian Shuttleworth)
"You could be excused for thinking Alan Ayckbourn has rattled off his latest play with more than usual alacrity. As the Becks-sex-text saga rumbles on,
Drowning On Dry Land examines the phenomenon of celebrity in Britain. It parades those who have attained fame through talent, through opportunism, through determination or simply through indefinable star quality.
Protagonist Charlie Conrad is firmly in the final category, and is the perfect hero for the underdog-obsessed British: failed athlete, failed quiz contestant, failed television presenter, Charlie's gift is to be "useless at everything" in a kind of apotheosis of ordinariness. He is also a typical Ayckbourn innocent: caught up in the machinery but fundamentally good-hearted and too trusting. His wife grows frustrated with his effortless eclipse of her abilities, a predatory television journalist prepares to stitch him up, and he is finally undone when a genuine fan, hired as a clown for his son's birthday party, takes things too far.
The mandatory clever Ayckbournian setting is more a concept than a physical construction. Two exits supposedly lead into a Victorian folly of a tower, cunningly built (we are told) so that its staircase leads right round to where you started, without ever taking you closer to the top.
Elsewhere, though, Ayckbourn shows signs of an uncharacteristic flaw: overwriting. Charlie is sometimes too insightful, or too arcane (with his musing on neutron stars, which cannot be seen, their existence only inferred from the behaviour of other bodies around them), or too epigrammatic, to be entirely the holy fool he is intended to be, despite Stephen Beckett giving an engaging performance which almost rides smoothly over these clunks. The contrivance of act two, scene one, is also a little bald: Ayckbourn evidently wanted to write a courtroom scene but didn't want to relocate from the single garden set so it becomes an exploratory meeting which happens to include some fearsome cross-examination from Stuart Fox's nicely unlikeable lawyer.
The play is close to being Ayckbourn at his unapologetic minor-key best, dishing out laughs along the way without modifying the ultimately
Star quality: Alan Ayckbourn's new play examines celebrities downbeat, pensive impression. In the end, though, it just misses the mark. Still, for someone so often accused of writing too easily, it will at least be a novel criticism to say that the effort here sometimes shows through."
(Financial Times, 6 May 2004)

Drowning On Dry Land (by Dave Windass)
"Alan Ayckbourn thrusts us into the vacuous,
Big Brother-era of celebrity for his 66th play. Opting to save his staging tricks for another production, the Scarborough bard takes a more conventional approach for Drowning On Dry Land, a tragi-comedy in three acts* played out on one location - Roger Glossop's Victorian folly design.
The benefit of this no frills packaging is the resultant witty dialogue, which brings the laughs raining down. Dialogue driven it may be but Ayckbourn also revels in his love of physical, slapstick comedy, allowing a clown-cum-children's entertainer (Sarah Moyle) to bring the celebrity lifestyle of Charlie (Stephen Beckett) - a good looking, simple man who became famous simply because he couldn't answer any questions on a quiz show - crashing down.
An update on the role of media-driven celebrity in society as portrayed in
Man of the Moment (1990)**, Ayckbourn dissects today's breed of people who are famous simply for being famous and the sly folk who work hard behind the scenes to keep them there. Charlie is married to Linzi - played by the chameleon-like Melanie Gutteridge - a one-time celebrity whose 15 minutes have now passed.
Together, they live a 'Posh and Becks'-style existence, where all publicity is good publicity - up to the point, that is, when Charlie gets caught in an uncompromising position. There to catch him at it is hawkish tabloid hack, Gale Gilchrist, played with insincere smile perfection by Billie-Claire Wright.
The middle act is simply supreme comedy, as Charlie's shifty lawyer Hugo (Stuart Fox) digs his client out of a big hole. Fox and Moyle both transfix with their hugely entertaining performances, which make way for a more reflective third act* that reminds us, if by then we were in any doubt, of the ephemeral, fickle nonsense that fame is.
Drowning is, without doubt, one of Ayckbourn's best. The man's a star."
(The Stage, 20 May 2004)

Drowning On Dry Land is actually a two-act play.
Man Of The Moment was actually first performed in 1988.

Drown And Out In Fickle World Of Celebrity (by Charles Hutchinson)
"Charlie Conrad has it all. A beautiful wife, Linzi, who had her 15 minutes on children's television; two adoring children; advertising contracts, designer-label wealth and a magnificent Georgian house.
Yet Charlie (Stephen Beckett) is an Eddie the Eagle for the age of Posh and Becks, his media fame built on the straw of no talent. He was a failed athlete and useless quiz contestant who struck a chord with the British through charming incompetence.
He had "it"; now he's had it, his seven years of plenty are just about to turn to seven years of lean in Alan Ayckbourn's 66th play, a wry study of media-driven society in which he ponders whether anything any more is what it seems.
Symbolically, Ayckbourn uses the setting of a garden folly, his latest inspired use of the physical possibilities of the Stephen Joseph Theatre stage and back-stage, courtesy of writer-director Ayckbourn's imagination and Roger Glossop's design. The folly, an echoing tower, has (unseen) steps that give off the illusion of climbing and descending when in reality they never change level.
Charlie's marriage has become an illusion too: he sees more of his agent, Jason Ratcliffe (Adrian McLoughlin) than his bored trophy wife (Melanie Gutteridge in Posh-lite mode), and today his diary of priorities places an interview with a bloodsucking TV interviewer Gale Gilchrist, (Billie-Claire Wright), above son Horsham's sixth birthday party with a children's entertainer, Mr Chortles.
When Charlie is caught in flagrante, pulling down the comedy bloomers of the clown - who in reality is his number one fan, Marsha Bates (Sarah Moyle) - he is in deep do-do, as his hotshot lawyer puts it. Up to this point,
Drowning On Dry Land had been a satire on Hello-era fame without the vicious hooks of sceptic Ayckbourn's earlier attack on media morality in 1988's Man Of The Moment. The opening of David Hare's The Permanent Way had made the same zeitgeist points, if more concisely.
Man Of The Moment's Vic Parks was a bank-robbing gangster (turned TV star), 2004's man of the moment, Charlie Conrad, is essentially a decent innocent abroad, one of life's club runners catapulted into a voracious, hyped world of much ado about nothing. The media has had its fill of him; now it is the turn of another word-spinning vulture, the legal profession, to play matador to his wounded bull.
In Stuart Fox's Hugo de Prescourt, Ayckbourn has created one of his great cameo turns, a lawyer schooled in Rumpole and George Carman as he turns Marsha's accusation of indecent assault on its head in a dazzling display of forensic logic that has you wishing for more of him. Instead, Ayckbourn returns to "yesterday's people", the fallen Charlie and blown-out Gale, in a surprisingly soft finale."
(Yorkshire Evening Press, 5 May 2004)

All reviews are copyright of the respective publication.