Better Off Dead: Synopsis

Cast: 4 male / 3 female
Running time (approximate):
2 hours 20 minutes - not including the interval.
Availability: Better Off Dead is available for professional and amateur production.
Acting Edition:
Samuel French.


A D Waterbridge (Algy), an author, 70s
Jessica Waterbridge, his wife, 70s
Thelma Bostock, his PA, 50s
Jason Ratcliffe, his publisher, 30s
Gus Crewes, a journalist, 70s
DCI Tommy Middlebrass, a figment, 50s
DS Gemma Price, a figment, mid-20s
Algy Waterbridge is an irascible and prolific author of detective fiction - currently at work on his 33rd novel featuring Tommy Middlebrass. In a conservatory at a remote house in the Esk Valley in Yorkshire, Algy is writing his latest 'masterpiece'.

Algy's world predominately consists of his wife, Jessica - whose mental deterioration means she is forgetting who her husband is - and his PA, Thelma - who is also responsible for his website.

Throughout the play, scenes from Algy's latest novel come to life as he dictates / writes his novel. These scenes, all set at night, are interspersed with Algy's reality, all set during the day.

Despite having been seen as a rising literary star in his early days and having a highly successful, if short-lived, television adaptation of the early Middlebrass novels - although featuring a Welsh actor as the Yorkshire detective Middlebrass, much to Algy's chagrin - Algy's star has been falling for years. Reluctantly he has agreed to meet freelance journalist Gus Crewes to promote his work and raise his profile. The disheveled journalist arrives, having apparently having gone to school with Algy, but his grasp of even the most basic of facts is loose to say the least. It does not help that he is more interested in talking about himself than interviewing Algy and that he works most regularly writing obituaries.
Algy's growing irritation with Gus peaks when it transpires he is aware of the
Silly Milly stories which Algy wrote for his estranged daughter and which he believed had never been seen by anyone else. Eventually, Middlebrass's character manifests itself in Algy and he bluntly and rudely dismisses Gus.

Confronted by Thelma, who notes that whenever he is writing Middlebrass becomes parts of his psyche, she admits that she found the
Silly Milly stories and believing they were of worth, has added them to his website - much to Algy's displeasure, who tells her to remove them. Returning to his book, elements of his conversations with Gus and Thelma begin to leak into his writing, much to his frustration. But when Thelma interrupts him to say Jessica is missing, he is angered when she says he should be more interested in real people than just his books.

Several days later with Jessica having been found safely, it is obvious her condition is deteriorating and she initially mistakes Algy for the plumber here to fix their drains. Algy returns to his writing, in which the story of Middlebrass's arch enemy - Leonard Arthur Hemp - and his most heinous crime is revealed.

Triumphantly finishing off the chapter, he is interrupted by Thelma with a copy of The Times newspaper and Gus's article - which transpires to be an obituary for Algy and which praises his
Silly Milly stories without mentioning his life's work on the Middlebrass novels. Algy demands Thelma get an apology whilst Jessica returns, apparently obvious to who Algy is.

Two days later and Algy is making good progress on the noel, which he believes will see the end of the criminal Hemp. His agent, Jason Ratcliffe, flies in by helicopter to see Algy, who he believes is a mere shadow of his father. Over the course of the - one-sided - conversation, Jason reveals Algy's books have been dropping in popularity over the years and essentially he now has no sales and the agency is going to drop him. Algy's lack of response leads Jason to fill in the silence with a few home truths: that Algy is largely the author of his own misfortune having ended the Middlebrass television series as well as unsuccessfully suing a number of famed authors for plagiarism. Eventually describing Algy's career as 'one long suicide note', Algy explodes and goes full Middlebrass on Jason, who quickly leaves the house.

Despondent by being dropped, he is nevertheless surprised when Thelma reports that hits to the website - declining for years - have begun to unexpectedly spike. Algy goes back to writing the final chapter and - in a surprising turn of events - Middlebrass is shot and killed by Hemp. As he finishes the book, Algy proclaims 'what have I done' just as Thelma returns announcing the website has gone viral with millions of hits.

The following day sees Algy reconciled with and talking with his daughter in Canada for the first time in years, who has seen the obituary. Thelma tells Algy that his agents are now interested in representing the
Silly Milly books - the cause of all the interest on the website - and that the Disney corporation is showing an interest in them. Algy tells Thelma to stop these negotiations.

Jessica appears, dressed for a funeral and convinced Algy is the plumber. She reveals she is going to the funeral of her husband, having seen it in the paper and organised it with the local vicar - hoping to humour her. Sitting with Algy, she reveals her feelings and thoughts about her husband and their lives together, visibly moving Algy.

As she goes to find the church, Algy tells Thelma he has reconsidered his position and not to rebuff Disney - that they could do with the money if nothing else. Thelma is delighted and goes to put in motion a new start for Algy. Jessica returns, distressed that the Church has apparently been moved. Having realised that real people who love him are more important than his fictional characters, Algy offers to take Jessica to 'his' funeral.

Stephen Joseph Theatre summer 2018 brochure copy
Larger than life and highly irascible author Algy Waterbridge is hard at work on his 33rd crime novel featuring blunt Yorkshire cop DCI Tommy Middlebrass. But it’s been a while since Tommy was on the TV, Algy’s wife is getting frighteningly forgetful and his adoring PA sometimes oversteps the mark. With constant interruptions, it’s almost the last straw when old acquaintance Gus Crewe turns up to interview him for the press with alarming consequences.

But as Algy’s fictional character takes him over and real people introduce themselves into the dramatic climax of his novel, the lines become blurred and it might just be that fiction, misunderstandings and mistaken identity are closer to the truth than they seem.

Alan Ayckbourn's latest play is a comedy of confusion about an grumpy old man who might not be so grumpy after all.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.