Better Off Dead: World Premiere Reviews

This page contains a selection of reviews from the world premiere production of Alan Ayckbourn's Better Off Dead at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, in 2018. All reviews are the copyright of the respective publication and / or author.

Better Off Dead (The Times)
Normally we should beware of plays with writers for heroes. Yet in his 82nd play, as in so many of the 81 that preceded it, Alan Ayckbourn toys with the rules in a way that’s witty and clear-sighted.
The story starts with a gruff Yorkshire copper, DCI Middlebrass, bantering with his new southern sidekick. We’ve seen this sort of thing a hundred times, but then that’s the point. Their hunt for a serial killer takes place around the octagonal outhouse where we see their irascible creator, Algy Waterbridge, struggling with this very story - his 33rd Middlebrass novel, no less.
Much as he’d like to block out reality while he tries to write, it keeps bleeding in. And we see what he writes bleeding into how he behaves too. His wife is lost to dementia. His readership is dying off. And after a disastrous interview with a bitter journalist (Leigh Symonds, excellent) he finds himself accidentally declared dead in the obituaries pages of The Times. Endings are always the hardest things to pull off - and it looks as if Algy’s will be thoroughly unsatisfying.
Like a lot of recent Ayckbourns,
Better Off Dead is two parts as inspired and acute as ever and one part in need of a final polish. I’ll take that deal. The jokes are good and the tragicomic trajectory is resonantly autumnal. When Eileen Battye as Jessica Waterbridge tells her writer husband all about himself, believing herself to be confiding in the drains man, he can see for himself the selfishness that his larkish assistant Thelma (Liz Jadav) keeps berating him for. And although the publishing-chief smoothy who arrives by helicopter feels a bit 1980s, never mind the finesse of Laurence Pears’ performance, Algy’s desolation at the end of his career is vivid.
Ayckbourn the writer uses the big declared-dead twist as a flavour-enhancer rather than his main ingredient. Ayckbourn the director is helped by an atmospheric garden design, by Michael Holt, and most of all by an outstanding lead performance. Christopher Godwin, who originated the role of Norman in
The Norman Conquests here 45 years ago, knows how to exploit every comic opportunity while remaining emotionally true and legible.
(Dominic Maxwell, The Times, 13 September 2018)

An elegy for the written off (The Observer)
For three of its four acts, the tone of Alan Ayckbourn’s new play, his 82nd, is valedictory, almost a lament. In the centre of the stage, alone in a glass-doored summer house, islanded in a lawned garden, a white-haired, white-bearded man hunches over a laptop. Algy (Christopher Godwin) is struggling to complete his 33rd novel but is beset, as he sees it, by interruptions. Thelma (Liz Jadav), his secretary, wants to enthuse him about the website he doesn’t see the point of. Jessica (Eileen Battye), to whom he has been married for decades, wants him to explain why someone has moved the shops so she cannot find them. His pup of a publisher (Laurence Pears) makes him feel like a has-been. Jokes about the impossibility of keeping up with the speed of change raise sympathetic laughter from the audience. Ayckbourn, it seems, is talking to his generation.
And yet… although always clear, Ayckbourn’s work is seldom simple. He is famous for his structural games: here, he gradually blurs the boundaries between Algy’s real life and his fictional characters: bluff Yorkshire DCI Tommy Middlebrass (Russell Dixon) and “soft, southern” DS Gemma Price (Naomi Petersen). He is also known for his canny plot devices which, always double-purposed, develop both action and characters: a visit from a journalist (Leigh Symonds) results in a piece of fake news that shatters the life that Algy has known.
The fourth act changes tone and affirms something that informs the structure, plotting and characterisations of all Ayckbourn plays I can think of: the sense that life is about our connections to people around us, and what makes life worth living is love. That’s a sense all generations can share.
Michael Holt’s design, as lit by Jason Taylor, follows Ayckbourn’s lead - co-opting the audience’s imaginations to complete the picture. Ayckbourn’s actors (he also directs) form an interconnected ensemble, individually and collectively excellent.
(Clare Brennan, The Observer, 16 September 2018)

Alan Ayckbourn whips up reassuring laughs in this droll portrait of looming mortality (Daily Telegraph)
As titles go,
Better Off Dead is as cheerless as they come. When it heralds the latest from Sir Alan Ayckbourn - now 79 - a momentary alarm-bell rings. Is this - play number 82 in the vast Ayckbourn canon - sounding a valedictory note?
Not a bit of it confides the artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Paul Robinson, who reveals that Scarborough’s tireless theatrical kingpin is already onto play number 84! And there’s little hint of a swansong amid this reassuringly comic Ayckbournian fare (directed by the author), which conducts a droll voyage round the massive ego of a prolific elderly writer who’s holed up in a Yorkshire summer-house churning out bread-and-butter crime fiction.
Resembling, at times, a peevish garden gnome, Christopher Godwin’s lanky, bearded Algy Waterbridge might almost have “Do Not Disturb” tattooed on his forehead. He gives brusque acknowledgement to his wife – suffering dementia-like confusions. He’s insufferably peremptory with his obliging PA. And as the fictional protagonists of his latest novel, no. 33, the gruff hard-bitten detective Tommy Middlebrass and DS Gemma Price, materialise amid the shrubbery outside his den it’s clear that he holds these mere imaginative figments dearest.
Ayckbourn’s work displays a recurrent interest in subordinate types learning to challenge the status quo and a fascination with exploring what’s real, what’s not. Those ingredients bubble away here but the intriguing tension between a rich interior life and impoverished personal relations feels under-exploited - Middlebrass fights back against being killed off yet, despite a solid performance from Russell Dixon, this pivotal character never fully lives and breathes.
In the main, the evening is taken up with the death throes - or otherwise - of Algy’s career. In an immensely enjoyable intrusion on his reclusive lair, sending his irritability soaring, the author gets interviewed - entertainingly ineptly - by an aged school acquaintance turned even more self-obsessed failed freelance journalist (a lovely, scarecrowish turn from Leigh Symonds). As a consequence of the resulting article making its way onto the obituary pages, Algy finds himself prematurely pronounced deceased. What’s the effect on his sales figures? His brash, clueless publisher (delightfully smarmy Laurence Pears) drops in to discuss the fake news fall-out.
The show could do with more twists and turns but there’s a poignant pay-off that gives Eileen Battye as the wife, lost in her own reverie, her moment and it’s generally heartening to find Ayckbourn whipping up laughter in the face of artistic adversity, male vanity and looming mortality.
(Dominic Cavendish, Daily Telegraph, 12 September 2018)

Better Off Dead (The Stage)
While fake news isn’t at the centre of
Better Off Dead, it certainly swirls around the edges of this bleakly comic play.
Its protagonist, writer Algy Waterbridge (played with a cantankerous swagger by Christopher Godwin), finds himself drawn into a bizarre, real-life drama after a disastrous interview with an inept journalist, Gus Crewes (Leigh Symonds), who is more in love with fiction than serious reportage.
Alongside the strangeness of Waterbridge’s own life, not least dealing with his increasingly bewildered wife Jessica (Eileen Battye), the characters of his latest novel - starring the flinty Yorkshire detective DCI Tommy Middlebrass (a wonderfully dour Russell Dixon) - seem intent on rebelling against their creator.
Under Ayckbourn’s simple and effective direction, staged around the raised wooden dais of Waterbridge’s writing room, we peek into the novelist’s mind: the lighting scheme becomes moody each time Middlebrass and his “soft southerner” sidekick DS Gemma Price (Naomi Peterson) begin acting out his thoughts - and get a sense of a man who, having lived much of his life on his own terms, is now losing his hold on the creative process and those closest to him.
Control, or rather the lack of it, seems to be on Ayckbourn’s mind with his latest play, Waterbridge’s hatred of the new realities of the publishing business - the push towards money-spinning, movie-ready storylines - and of modern life (he never bothers updating, or even looking at his own website) creates an engagingly Canute-like figure.
As self-obsessed as he is, it’s hard not to feel affection for Waterbridge each time he sits down at his laptop, and, with a roll of his shoulders like a boxer limbering up, prepares for his latest bout with the written word.
(Will Ramsey, The Stage, 17 September 2018)

Better Off Dead (Yorkshire Post)
Time, experience and the final curtain are just some of the themes Ayckbourn tackles in his latest play,
Better Off Dead, receiving its world premiere in Scarborough this summer.
The title is a question that hangs over the play's protagonist, irascible Algy Waterbridge, throughout the play, as he wonders in the twilight of his career exactly how he might be remembered.
He gets the chance to find out when an incompetent journalist writes up an interview with him and files it somehow under ‘obituaries.’ With reports of his death being a little premature, Algy does wonder if he might be better off dead?
It is always tempting to try to spot the writer in his work and Ayckbourn has a lot of fun knowing that the audience will assume he is Algy, the successful author in the winter of his career. He makes Waterbridge excessively and outrageously more grumpy than he might otherwise be, creating a gift of a role for Christopher Godwin.
Godwin is wonderful as the author of the DCI Tommy Middlebrass series of books. We watch as he types his latest novel and the characters come to life on stage as he taps his keyboard. Tommy Middlebrass is expertly embodied, gruff Yorkshireman archetype, by Russell Dixon and his long suffering partner is played with stoicism by Naomi Petersen.
There are flashes of the brilliance we have seen from Ayckbourn over his long and distinguished career - but the coups de theatre are used sparingly and Ayckbourn concentrates on the story which exists on terra firma as opposed to those that exist on the astral plane.
So while we watch the characters Algy imagines come to life and act out their own scenes as he writes them, it is the more grounded stories - of a wife with dementia and an estranged daughter - that keep the drama ticking over here.
A gentle play, it is an easy Ayckbourn to enjoy.

(Nick Had, Yorkshire Post, 14 September 2018)

Better Of Dead (The Reviews Hub)
Better Off Dead is one of those puzzling Alan Ayckbourn plays that leave one wishing for a second viewing to work out where exactly the focus lies and how seriously to take the proceedings – not that a second viewing would be any hardship, the play is unfailingly entertaining and full of surprises and a sort of bruised humanity. At the interval, the consensus was that it was a very jolly play until we realised that the themes were ageing, dementia and murder, but that’s Ayckbourn for you!
Algy Waterbridge is a veteran thriller writer whose books have gone out of fashion, but who still perseveres with novels about DCI Tommy Middlebrass of the North Yorkshire Constabulary, an old-school maverick who fits in with no police college system of keeping the law. Of course, in the tradition of odd couples of fictional cops, he is teamed with a young female sergeant who comes from Surrey (or is it Sussex? Tommy’s not quite sure). Sadly she doesn’t really understand the importance of sitting on a bar stool supping pints all night.
Algy sits in his summer-house writing novel number 33 (another idyllic garden setting from Michael Holt) while Tommy and his sidekick prowl around on the trail of a criminal long hated by Tommy. Algy becomes furiously intemperate with his harmless PA, his accent broadening and expletives booming out, so is this going to be about the takeover of the author by his own creation? Not entirely.
His wife, suffering from dementia, can hardly recognise him, so is it the study of a marriage surviving against the odds? An interview with an incompetent journalist leads to an accidental obituary which gives inaccurate information about Algy (and accurate information which he wished to conceal) - and, when his publisher zooms in his helicopter, we are in the harsh world of business. So what’s it all about, Algy? Suffice it to say that the title and various first half indicate that there will be a death, but who? Various suggestions surfaced in the interval, but Ayckbourn, of course, tricks us all.
The certainty is that Ayckbourn, once again, obtains superb performances all down the line from a cast of mostly old Ayckbourn hands. Suddenly rep seasons are back in fashion (locally Harrogate and Leeds), but the Stephen Joseph Theatre has long had the benefit of a sort of semi-rep season in the Summer with overlapping casts. Here Laurence Pears and Leigh Symonds are luxury casting in small one-scene parts, having stayed on from lead roles in
Joking Apart. Symonds is gloriously comic as Gus Crewe, the journalist who can’t remember names and talks mainly about himself, and Pears is the self-important publisher in a scene cleverly poised between comedy and pathos – a rather funnier echo of Willie and Howard in Death of a Salesman.
Liz Jadav is the perfect model of ordinariness as the devoted, but independent-minded, PA Thelma Bostock; Eileen Battye gives Jessica, Algy’s wife, a charmingly self-possessed vagueness; Russell Dixon plays the boorishly self-confident Tommy Middlebrass to the hilt - shades of Andy Dalziel; Naomi Peterson is far more sensible than Tommy deserves as DS Gemma Price.
In the middle of it all is a terrific performance from Christopher Godwin as Algy, magnificent in his contempt for social niceties or his outrage at such slights as casting a Welshman as Middlebrass in a long-gone television series, bullying and hectoring, but human beneath it all - at least, when Tommy Middlebrass doesn’t take him over.

(Ron Simpson, The Reviews Hub, 133 September 2018)

Ayckbourn plays with idea of life and death with a killer's instinct (The Scarborough News)
There are two pages on fake news in the programme which accompanies Alan Ayckbourn's 82nd play Better off Dead, writes Sue Wilkinson.
It details satirist Jonathan Swift's feud with astrologer and self-styled physician John Partridge - which included Swift writing a premature obituary on his enemy.
So to the premise of
Better Off Dead - when a journalist arrives to interview detective fiction writer Algy Water-bridge. The result is an obituary on the very much alive Algy which turns his world upside down - or right side up - depending on your nature.
Fake news is one of the themes of this complicated, multi-thematic piece. It is also a play about ageing - slowly and inexorably -feeling the physical aches and pains, the mental deterioration and the emotional rollercoaster of going gentle and helplessly or raging and raving into that good night. The pace of life is too fast and technology impossible to master. Family frictions and fractures are too deep to mend and there is no time for new relationships or a different way of life. It addresses what's real, what's imagined, how we are perceived, how we perceive ourselves and how we would like to be perceived.
There's more to this play than a feud between two writers where only one remembers why there is a feud at all (back to Swift and Partidge).
Running along side the main story is the imagined detective story about a serial killer Algy is writing. It features Algy's creation DCI Tommy Middlebrass and his younger sidekick Gemma Price. Middlebrass is Algy's mirror image on the page - an irascible, impatient, intolerant Yorkshireman. Gemma has facets of all the women in Algy's life - his PA, his wife, longed for lovers and his estranged daughter.
Maybe Ayckbourn has always wanted to write an out-and-out whodunnit-because the Middlebrass mystery and characters are every bit as real and interesting as Algy and his household.
Ayckbourn's is well-served by his cast. Christopher Godwin-returning to play an Ayckbourn lead after decades (apart from Woman in Black) away from the Stephen Joseph is Algy. He is the embodiment of rampant ego, frustration, irascibility and tenderness towards his wife, played by Eileen Battye, suffering from dementia. Never off stage, the other characters like satellites move round him - either carefully or devil-may-carefully.
Liz Jadav as his PA being of the latter persuasion is the audiences conduit into Algy's psyche and personality. Lawrence Pears plays his publisher - think Alistair and Lionel in
As Time Goes By.
Leigh Symonds is the journalist with the most fantastic name - Gus Crewes - and Symonds as a fine time playing the deliberately cliched hack. Middlebrass and Price are billed as 'figments' - as in of Algy's imagination.
Middlebrass is also a cliche - this time of a TV detective - a touch of Frost, a serving of Morse and a dose of Dalziel. Russell Dixon, who plays him, and Naomi Petersen as Price - a soupcon of Lewis, a sprinkling of Pascoe and a helping of Havers-are the perfect double act. He a northern, pint-downing old school detective, she a southern, softie who drinks pink tonic. The pace of the play is slow, its tone, like its main character, often irascible and barbed and occasionally tender.
Better Off Dead is a masterclass in acting and buzzes, like a lazy bee in summer, with ideas and is riddled with killer lines with a sting in the tail.
(Sue Wilkinson, The Scarborough News, 13 September 2018)

Better Off Dead (On: Yorkshire Magazine)
Centre stage in Better Off Dead is a stylish writing shed surrounded by garden. In it, Algy Waterbridge is writing his 33rd crime novel.
Audience members who’ve read their programme notes already know that DCI Tommy Middlebrass is the novel’s protagonist since, with characteristic attention to detail, Alan Ayckbourn has written an extract in it from this fictitious work. With a deft lighting change, the DCI and his new southern sidekick, Gemma Price, appear in the garden, acting out the story he’s writing and narrating. This is Ayckbourn’s wonderfully simple and innovative way of introducing us to his 82nd stage-work which he also directs, and its look at the interplay between fiction and reality.
It’s fitting that the shed is centre stage: here, in a world of his own and proud of his reputation as a major writer, Algy creates and controls events. Throughout, the characters he invents play out their parts in his ‘Middlebrass’ novel as he works on it.
When the ‘real world’ intrudes, this is irritatingly not the case.
Algy is somewhat protected from a prevailing fear by his devoted PA, Thelma, who tells him: ‘All the best writers are out of fashion now and then, till they’re re-discovered.’ But they have regular, revealing spats, too. Frustrated after he momentarily casts her as one of his characters, Thelma spits at him: ‘The world also consists of people other than yourself and your fictional characters.’ Significantly, one of those other people is his wife, Jessica, who forgets that she’s ‘popping out to the shops’ as soon as she mentions it. General dogsbody Thelma protects her, too.
But Algy is at the mercy of Thelma’s autonomous arrangements. When she organises an interview with ‘someone who went to school with you’, reclusive Algy fumes. Nevertheless, he resumes control by rehearsing a welcome for Gus Crewes which he executes beautifully. He’s an artist: he needs to create order. That order is perilised during the disastrous interview with Gus Crewes (Leigh Symonds) which sets in train a series of life-changing events for Algy.
Ayckbourn’s writing and direction are beautifully honed. His actors, most of whom have worked with him before and understand the challenges of theatre-in-round, are in tune with his tragi-comic tone and the essence of the characters he creates. The interview scene is a master-class in comic theatre.
Crewes’ interview technique is appalling. It’s not surprising really – he’s an obituary writer. Leigh Symonds’ self-absorbed newspaper hack is gloriously shambolic and invidious, and Christopher Godwin’s timing and gauging of Algy’s slow emotional burn to volcanic eruption is exquisite in this scene. Gable is the perfect Algy in appearance, manner and interaction, revealing him as a cantankerous and vulnerable older man but master of his fiction.
Russell Dixon, a seasoned and versatile Ayckbourn actor, is the epitome of Algy’s heavy-drinking, brusque Yorkshire detective of a type familiar to crime readers and TV viewers. I’d have preferred his final scene to be a touch less naturalistic: until then Middlebrass seems a delightful, slightly larger-than-life character. Naomi Peterson, as his sidekick Gemma, ably portrays a young woman from the south, bemused at first by her boss, and gradually learning to appreciate his gruff kindness and ‘inneat’ (innate) sense of justice.
The ‘real life’ characters are crafted beautifully by Ayckbourn and easy to recognise as people we might know. Eileen Battye is sadly hilarious as the demented but chirpy Jessica, confident that the reason she can’t find the shops is that they’ve been relocated. Her final scene with Algy, when she believes him to be a drains expert, is deeply touching.
Liz Jadav as Thelma looks the perfect example of ‘complete averageness’, as Algy calls her, but she portrays a fully rounded character, not simply ‘salt of the earth’. She simpers to visitors and speaks home truths to her boss, working him beautifully. We can easily believe that this Thelma is more in control of Algy’s life than he is. She even takes it upon herself to risk his wrath by giving his unpublished children’s series he’s dismissed as drivel, massive online coverage. But, when absolutely necessary, her sensitivity is revealed.
In a gob-smacking climax to the first half of the play, Thelma enters hesitantly with a copy of The Times. Towards the back of the paper is Gus Crewe’s article. It’s an obituary. Reeling from the shock, Algy prods his body and mutters: ‘I’m still alive. Aren’t I?’
If I gave any more plot details, I’d spoil it. Suffice to say that the ‘bombs’ falling on and around Archy have darkly hilarious consequences, some effected by his publisher, Jason Ratcliffe. There are several digs at southerners in the play, but none more overt than in the mouth of Algy’s sickeningly smooth and brutal publisher, played by Laurence Pears. Pears stands tall and ignorant in his slickness and inhumanity. It’s a compliment to say that he gives a repulsive performance.
In
Better Off Dead, Ayckbourn has achieved the remarkable feat of dramatising and staging for a live audience the workings of a writer’s mind. He takes the audience on a theatrical journey to reveal something of how an author’s imagination channels life experiences and emotions into the relatively safe realm of fiction. Coming from this major playwright, it rings true. I have one little niggle, only mentioned because Ayckbourn’s technical direction is meticulous: I do wish the laptop, almost a character itself, had functioned more realistically.
Ayckbourn is a grand master of theatre. Yet again, he has blended the multiple elements of playwriting and direction to make an organic whole, richer than the sum of its parts. Better Off Dead is a deeply satisfying entertainment, full of wit, wisdom and irony but most notably, it’s a work of great humanity which left me thinking. I’m still pondering the question posed in some of the publicity: Are fiction, misunderstandings and mistaken identity closer to the truth than they should be?
Sitting at the back of the auditorium for the performance I attended, was Alan Ayckbourn himself. At the end, he joined the rest of the audience in enthusiastic applause for the deserving cast. I wanted to applaud him, too.

(Eve Luddington, On: Yorkshire Magazine, 12 September 2018)

All reviews are copyright of the respective publication.