Theatre should be entertaining, but at times it also helps us to understand our lives and the decisions we make.
Volunteer committee membership
I’m thinking about this after having made the New Year’s resolution not to accept invitations to join any more committees. Not because I don’t think people getting together to achieve something better isn’t a good idea, I just don’t like the experience of being on a committee and the person that I think being on a committee might mean I am at risk of becoming.
Rather than explain more, if you want to understand what I mean you can spend an evening watching Ten Times Table.
A tale of committee life
Alan Ayckbourn wrote the comedy Ten Times Table in 1977. He had to move his theatre from the library in Scarborough to new premises. Anyone who has moved to a new house knows what an arduous experience this can be. Ayckbourn’s move was complicated by having to spend lots of time in committees. Once the process was complete, he wrote Ten Times Table about the sort of people who like being on committees.
I suspect that most of the people who volunteer to be on a committee do so because they want to get something done, achieve an objective or make something better. Ayckbourn became fascinated by the people that populated committees and how they used the procedures and protocols of the committee to fulfil their objectives even when this rather contrary to the objective of the committee or common sense.
Comedy or farce
When Ten Times Table was first produced in London during 1978 theatre folklore records that a cleaner was heard to say that “The trouble with Ten Times Table is that it starts as comedy and ends up as farce”.
Ayckbourn himself has described Ten Times Table as a play that could be described as a predominantly sedentary farce with faintly allegorical overtones. It would he said in more innocent days, probably have been subtitled a romp.
Written in its time
In some ways if you want to understand Ten Times Table you have to recognise that it was written at a time when opposing political views were increasingly polarised.
The values of the Labour government were being challenged by an increasingly militant left-wing trade union movement that would result in the winter of discontent and more than a decade of Conservative party rule under Margaret Thatcher.
We think of British society as being polarised nowadays but back then there was a feeling of class warfare that would only be calmed by the creation of working-class shareholding investors and property owners by the Thatcher government.
What’s in a name
You see a title like Ten Times Table and your first thought is that the play must be about a primary school experience of learning multiplication tables. But this is to jump to the wrong first impression.
The title, Ten Times Table, refers to the ten times that a volunteer committee will sit around the same table to discuss the matter they are committed to dealing with.
In Ten Times Table we see over the course of the play four of these meetings during which the committee discuss the planning of a festival to commemorate an event from the town’s history. The massacre of the Pendon 12.
The creative team behind what is a star studied production are old hands when it comes to Ayckbourn.
Director Robin Herford started working with Ayckbourn as an actor at Scarborough in 1976 and has appeared in more original Acykbourn plays than anyone else. The designer Michael Holt also has an association with Ayckbourn that goes back forty years. For this production he has created a set that captures the faded glory of an old county hotel. Everything that you expect in a grand hotel to work perfectly just doesn’t.
The personalities of the characters created by Acykbourn reflect the polarisation of political perspectives that came with the realisation that seventies Britain was not the united and equal place that people believed that it was or should have been.
Bringing these characters and their varying values and priorities on to one committee allows us to see a microcosm of British society at the time, warts and all and to wonder if anything has changed?
- Eric is a Marxist champion of the people – who would probably be a Corbyn supported today
- Helen is a true-blue Tory
- Ray is just keeping his head down not wanting to upset anyone else or be upset by them.
- Harry is full of the gusto that only ex-military people have
- Tim is convinced that he is right
- Donald is a committed detail orientated committee member whose main objective is to get on more committees
- Audrey is Donald’s mother,
During my volunteering experience I have met each and every one of them, several times!
- Robert Daws, famous for playing Dr. Gordon Ormerod in The Royal as well as roles in Poldark, Outside Edge and Roger Roger.
- Deborah Grant, who played Wendy in Not Going Out and Deborah Bergerac in Bergerac.
- Gemma Oaten of Emmerdale and Holby City
- Robert Duncan of Drop The Dead Donkey fame and theatre veteran
- Mark Curry, a former Blue Peter presenter with a successful stage and TV career including Hollyoaks Last of The Summer Wine.
- Craig Gazey, from Coronation Street
- Elizabeth Power who played Christine Hewitt in EastEnders.
- Director Robin Herford
- Lighting design Jason Taylor
- Sound Dan Samson.
- Set and costume design Michael Holt.