Intimate Exchanges: World Premiere Reviews

This page contains a selection of reviews from the world premiere production of Alan Ayckbourn's Intimate Exchanges at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, in 1982. All reviews are the copyright of the respective publication and / or author.

Administrator's Note: It is worth emphasising the majority of the publications which reviewed the original production of Intimate Exchanges saw no more than two variations of the play, which is often reflected in the reviews.

Another Ayckbourn, Another Hit (by Irving Wardle)
"Alan Ayckbourn is celebrating his first 25 years in Scarborough with a piece that could well keep the company busy until his next anniversary. On any single night, the audience for his production of
Intimate Exchanges will see a comedy in four scenes extending over five years. They will also see a wall chart with that night's scenes lit up in red among a mass of others to be substituted on other nights.
As things stand at present, there are 30 scenes, amounting to 16 complete versions of the play which, incidentally, comprises eight characters, all played by Lavinia Bertram and Robin Herford.
As usual, the theme is marital discontent, focusing this time on the staff and officials of a village primary school. Toby, the headmaster, is a drunk; Celia, his wife, is on the point of bolting back to mother; Miles, the Chairman of the Governors, fancies Celia; and his wife Rowena, is having an affair with the PE teacher. So much for the ground-plan, as laid down in the first scene, "How It Began" which is common to all versions.
At this stage of Ayckbourn's career it is meaningless to applaud him for ingenuity. Nobody would devise these increasingly labyrinthine theatre games just for the hell of it,
How you view his comedies depends on how you apportion the relative influence of luck and character on human affairs; but if you incline to the second then a piece like
Intimate Exchanges offers only an illusion of alternatives. Not for nothing does the wall-chart suggest a toy railway layout, with locos switching from track to track, seemingly independent, but all destined to wind up in a little plastic shed, with no hope of escaping from the board.
So far as the detail is concerned, the first night trip led over some well-landscaped comic territory. Popular Ayckbourn beat-spots, such as the dinner table and the sports field flashed past with plenty of background interest in the off-stage kitchen and cricket pitch, and much amazing doubling as the partners pop up not only as two married couples but also as parents, home-helps, and other members of the school staff.
My only qualm is that some of these routines derives more from inventive expertise than from the logic of character. In that sense, the piece gets off to a false start.
We see the Chairman of the Governors coming to interview the head's wife before a vital Board meeting that will decide, whether or not he will be fired. Having set up that expectation Ayckbourn sidesteps it in the next scene and the firm initial outline dissolves into the quick-sands of a half-hearted love affair.
Also, after the long build-up for Toby, as husband, drunk, teacher, and best friend it is a disappointment when he finally appears as no more than a loud-mouthed boor, responding with standardised jealousy to the discovery of a trouserless Miles in the tool-shed.
The remaining trio deserve a place in any Ayckbourn gallery. Miles begins as an image of fatuous, inhibited respectability, played by Mr Herford with flashing teeth and steel spectacles, forever lunging about with the sherry bottles. But he goes on to reveal alarming powers of sardonic wit and practised meanness; and it is he who speaks for the whole group with a line from Stendhal: "A very small degree of hope is sufficient to cause the birth of love."
Miss Bertram creates two utterly distinct and believable wives in the dangerously smiling Celia, suggesting a cut-glass decanter about to explode into flying glass; and the relaxed, feline Rowena - the only character with any sense of humour or enough fortitude to settle finally for a solitary life.
That is the closest anyone comes to fulfilment in this variant of the play. Ayckbourn's chart hopefully promises
A Wedding, A Christening and Return of the Prodigal among the future alternatives. They may bring the characters to a happy ending, but I doubt it."
(The Times, June 1982)

Intimate Exchanges (by Eric Shorter)
"When Alan Ayckbourn writes a play to be performed in 16 versions, the playgoer is bound to feel frustrated. Are the characters so straw-like that he can cause them to be blown in - well - 16 directions? Must we go to the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the round at Scarborough 16 times to get the hang of
Intimate Exchanges?
Well, there are people who collect as many versions as they can while on holiday. Indeed, they have made this two-hander, about three couples whose various couplings or dreams of coupling create the necessary variations on the usual Ayckbourn extramarital, the most successful piece of his to have started life at Scarborough in the 12 years he has been running the theatre there.
It ran through last summer and has just been revived with the same players, Lavinia Bertram and Robin Herford, as the different types who come and go through half a dozen scenes of characteristic English suburban manners and sexual uncertainty.
Dorothy L Sayers once said that as she grew older and older and drew nearer to the tomb, she found that she cared less and less who went to bed with whom. It is Ayckbourn's far-from-frivolous ability to make us care in each version of
Intimate Exchanges what happens next and to whom.
He had me worried last summer, when it opened, to know whether the diffident young chairman of a preparatory school board of governors was going to seduce the dissatisfied wife of the headmaster. This year he had me worried to know if that same chairman, showing no fancy at all for the headmaster's wife, was ever to be reconciled to his own flighty wife, having locked himself up for five sulky weeks in the garden shed.
The ending was sad, as it had been in the first version I saw; but the beginning and middle were as delightful as ever, not only because of the way this author persuades us of each change of emotional relations, but also because of the ingenuity with which he juggles the 10 characters between two players - and the unflagging ability of Miss Bertram and Mr Herford to switch from one character to the next so easily that one almost forgets there are just two actors.
Miss Bertram's witty versatility is particularly remarkable and easy. Will
Intimate Exchanges ever reach London, or will it stay in Yorkshire for a third season of record breaking, comic disillusionment with wedlock? Plans are afoot for a subscription scheme to the play."
(Daily Telegraph, 22 August 1983)

Intimate Exchanges (by Robin Thornber)
"For the next three months, instead of a summer season of repertory, they are doing just one new play, with two actors, at the Stephen Joseph Theatre-in-the-Round in Scarborough. It's Alan Ayckbourn's 28th*, and it marks 25 years of his association with this company.
But there is, as you might expect from Ayckbourn, more to it than that.
Intimate Exchanges opens with a woman hesitating over whether to light a cigarette. If she does, she's there to answer the doorbell. If she doesn't, she misses the caller and her whole life follows a different course of events.
Like J. B. Priestley. Ayckbourn is fascinated by chance. He collects fruit machines and relishes the infinitely random plot possibilities, the endless variety of "if onlys" in any individual's life.
We first saw this with
Sisterly Feelings, where the toss of a coin and the whim of an actress determined which of four possible lines of action any one performance might follow.
With
Intimate Exchanges, the number of possible variations has been extended to 16. A total of 31 scenes have to be rehearsed, from which you may see a permutation of four on any given night. So for the seaside holidaymaker, Intimate Exchanges does in fact offer a repertory of 16 different ways - all developing in different directions from that same first five seconds of hesitation.
For the company, Lavinia Bertram, Robin Herford, designer Edward Lipscomb and the technical crew, and of course Ayckbourn as writer and director, it's a massive project. There's slim artistic justification for using the same two actors to play four or more characters each, although it's technically admirable.
The play is set among the staff of a prep school, and the version we saw on the first night has the headmaster's wife having an affair with the chairman of the governors.
It leaves you with the suspicion that all the energy has gone into technical ingenuity, leaving the texture a little thin. But the temptation to come back for more, to see some of the what might have beens, is irresistible."
(The Guardian, 5 June 1982)

Intimate Exchanges (by David Jeffels)
"Brilliant performances by the two strong cast, Robin Herford and Lavinia Bertram, make Alan Ayckbourn's new play
Intimate Exchanges an exciting new dimension in the work of Britain's most prolific comedy playwright.
Premiered at Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre where Ayckbourn is director of productions, this new play - his 28th* - marks his 25 years with the Scarborough theatre company.
Its style follows that of his highly successful
Sisterly Feelings which had three alternative themes. Intimate Exchanges has a potential 16 variations with each actor playing four parts.
The idea is clever and effective but the script in places needs tightening to hold the audience.
As usual, Ayckbourn has produced an in-depth study of relationship between couples - strained and often broken. But nevertheless, it has many very funny moments, and Robin Herford and Lavinia Bertram, well established stars at Scarborough, give their finest performances yet in some very demanding roles."
(The Stage, 17 June 1982)

Variations On A Theme (by Iain Meekley)
"The play which refreshes the parts others cannot reach - and reaches a few parts only Alan Ayckbourn would think of refreshing -
Intimate Exchanges, continues on its merry ways at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
The logic of the play's structure - plot leading to alternative sub-plot, and sub-sub-plot, as the action progresses - is by now becoming a little less foggy.
Last night was a bit of a diversion. Lavinia Bertram reached for that fateful early-morning fag - and, by that simple decision, shunted the whole play off along the second of its two main plot-lines, each of which leads to a major junction connected to a cluster of alternative scenes.
Thus, last night it was the turn of "a gardener" to call on Celia, the headmaster's angst-ridden wife, in the shape of Lionel, a broody Laurentian figure in moleskin trousers.
Dropping sexual hints as broad as his toe-caps, he begins a relentless pursuit of the frightened and fascinated Celia, whose Guardian-reading husband, Toby, has been driven to drink by the decay of Western civilisation - "... and they've started this filthy floodlit cricket", Toby purples.
The chase, ending in an appalling graveyard denouement, takes us through a succession of marvellously drawn scenes - at one point, we find husband and wife gloomily holidaying in a geriatric last resort burstingly alive with "the merry clatter of walking frames", Toby slowly dying of ennui and a cardiac condition, while Celia crams down loaves of triangular sandwiches rushed to her table teatime after teatime by the burning-eyed waiter.
It's a breathtaking acting achievement by Lavinia Bertram and Robin Herford, who, in the tortuous course of
Intimate Exchanges, are each called upon to play four major roles - sometimes two at once, as voices offstage.
If Ayckbourn's "piece of theatrical lunacy" pays off, the credit will be theirs - in no small part."
(Scarborough Evening News, 22 June 1982)

Intimate Exchanges (by Desmond Pratt)
"It was in 1979 in
Sisterly Feelings that Ayckbourn started the game of playing theatrical alternatives.
What the audience saw then could have been any one of four possible versions of the play, depending on the toss of a coin at the end of the first scene and the decision of one of two actresses at the end of the second. I was not happy about the play because I thought the alternatives clouded the relationships rather than revealing them, and felt that the author pupped a theatrical maverick.
I had no maverick doubts last night with
Intimate Exchanges, Ayckbourn's 28th play*, written to celebrate his 25 years with the company. He examined how life is changed by the tiny decisions we make every day, which require us to make further small decisions.
It is not a single play but several mini-plays masquerading as one. The play is a series of interlinked love-stories, with a possible 16 different endings in 30 scenes, some sad, others happy. Last night we saw five of them. and during the coming run which ends on September 11, all 30 scenes will have been seen and the 16 variations (different versions upon a basic theme) staged.
Edward Lipscomb, the designer, has adorned the auditorium with grassy banks and overhanging trees, as all the scenes take place out of doors.
The six central characters, three men and three women, are all played by two actors. Lavinia Bertram and Robin Herford, both long-time members of the company.
At the heart of the farcical incidents (for this is a very funny play) we are again witnessing a study of two disintegrating marriages. Their disparity is couched in witty, satirical, but observantly cogent dialogue
The heartbreak is there again, and no more than in Miss Bertram's Celia, with despair lurking behind the laughter. One day Ayckbourn may write a second
Hedda Gabler.
For both Miss Bertram, and Mr Herford, between them playing eight wildly varied roles last night, was a test of drama technique, involvement and understanding, which they passed with honours.
Do not dismiss this as a triviality of whimsy. It is Ayckbourn at his best and at his most sympathetic about the human comedy. Behind his two actors and his four scenes, he manages to conjure up quite exquisitely the extraneous and uncomprehending world outside."
(Yorkshire Post, 4 June 1982)

*
Intimate Exchanges is actually now considered to be Alan Ayckbourn's 29th full-length play.

All reviews are copyright of the respective publication.

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