Review: Ten Times Table at Grand Opera House, York

‘Ten Times Table’ produced by The Classic Comedy Theatre Company brings the present political landscape to life through the vehicle of a committee and the polarised opinions of those who comprise it.

Review by Angie Millard

Photos by Pamela Raith

Written in 1977 Alan Aykbourn’s play at The Royal Opera House mirrors our present society, fractured as it is by divided opinion. Aykbourn is an actor and writer and he understands what makes comedy work. He blends a mixture of identifiable characters and situations which can and often does lead to hilarious conclusions but underneath it all is the seething discontent of the middle class suburban society in conflict.

The play came out of a difficult period when The Scarborough theatre was moving premises and, unsurprisingly, it is all about that great British institution: the committee. His plays often experiment with style and times but this one needs nothing more than a meeting room in which a mixture of locals convene and express themselves. Aykbourn became fascinated by the way people used procedures and protocols to get what they wanted.

The meeting room, in this case, is the ballroom of the faded Swan Hotel and the members are there to conduct the business of the Pendon Festival or ‘The Historic Commemoration of the Pendon Twelve’. We have an excitable chairman Ray (Robert Daws), his wife Helen (Deborah Grant), the complete Tory and Women’s Institute figure and the Marxist teacher Eric (Craig Gazey), who is diametrically opposed to any of Helen’s ideas. He manages to divide the committee and isolate the irate Helen. She turns to Tim, (Harry Gostelow) an ex-army, gun-toting right-winger and the fun begins. Added to the mix is Donald a councillor who is tirelessly pedantic (Mark Curry), and his mother, a deaf octogenarian who acts as committee secretary, (Elizabeth Power) and you have… ‘the committee from hell or, as has been said, a fete worse than death’.

053_Ten Times Table_Pamela Raith Photography2
Photo by Pamela Raith

In the seventies, when this was written, there was a political polarisation between the Left and the Right and there are definitely similarities with contemporary politics. The setting is perfect for the play and those that have sat on committees with their various confrontations can easily relate to the humour. Suffice it to say that the play ends in high farce accompanied by the piano playing secretary.

Chairman Ray is central to the humour of the piece acting as a referee in the class struggle played out by his wonderfully tenacious wife (Helen) and the ruthless Marxist. It is clear from the start that neither will give an inch. Helen’s only ally Tim is an eccentric character injecting bravura and a crazy intensity to the proceedings.

Aykbourn famously said: ‘If you write a brilliant play and cast it wrongly you are doomed.’ and it is true to say that Craig Gazey as the Marxist teacher lacks the strength and charisma to convince us fully. It was playing first night in a new theatre in what is the second week of the tour and much more pace was needed to carry the ultimate chaos of the piece. However, Aykbourn’s genius as a writer of comedy is still evident and his comment: ‘committee people are a race apart’ has never been more apposite.

Ten Times Table will be performed at Grand Opera House, York until 15 February 2020. It was written by Alan Aykbourn and directed by Robin Hereford. The designer was Michael Holt.