Way Upstream: World Premiere Reviews

This page contains reviews of the world premiere production of Alan Ayckbourn's Way Upstream at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, in October 1981. It is not a complete set of reviews as the aim of the page is to offer a flavour of how the play was originally received and to offer a cross-section of opinion. All reviews on this page are the copyright of the respective publication and / or author and should not be reproduced. Extracts from reviews of the original London production of Way Upstream at the National Theatre can be found here.

Way Upstream (by Anthony Curtis)
"Alan Ayckbourn's 26th play* is set aboard a cabin-cruiser on a sleepy English river. The Scarborough arena has been filled with several inches of mild-coloured liquid to simulate the water-way, while moored alongside a hummocky, grassy bank is a spanking little craft with cabins fore and aft, plus it seems all the standard fittings. They include an engine that makes the right sound and a cooling-system that spews fluid realistically out of the exhaust.
Once the play gets under way the manoeuvrability of the vessel proves to be considerable; even more so is the ingenuity of the stage-staff who arrange for it to glide under bridges with an echo-effect, pause at locks, weigh anchor in the moonlight, and tie-up beside a private island with its own little wooden jetty. One wonders how all these marvellous happenings could possibly be recreated in the proscenium stage of some conventional London theatre.
Meanwhile the challenge to the playwright's virtuosity in keeping a cast of seven happy under such cramped conditions, as quite a complicated story unfolds during the seven days and nights of the voyage, is one which Ayckbourn handles with insolent ease. He begins by placing two married couples aboard in the midst of a blazing row between Keith (Robin Bowerman) and his wife June (Carole Boyd). The two men are business partners, and the two women a contrast between the predatory and the pure.
Some hilarious knockabout comedy occurs as the holiday quartet explores the ship and eventually turns in for the night with pyjama-ed figures popping up through open hatches. Here are all the ingredients of a ripping nautical farce: but this playwright has long since ceased to be content with mere farce. As the vessel proceeds upstream it turns away from Pinero-land and enters J. M. Barrie country.
In other words, we witness a contest between the Weak and the Strong in which ultimately the Weak (or should one say Meek?) prove to be stronger than the Strong. Alistair (Robin Herford) and Emma (Lavinia Bertram) the second couple, know absolutely nothing about boats and are content to take orders from the blustering Keith who revels in his role as skipper. However, he has his problems ashore as the work force in his factory prepare to strike; daily visits from his secretary (Susan Uebel) keep him abreast of the situation.
The holiday-makers are forced to take aboard a sinister stranger Vince (Graeme Eton) to get them out of the mud during Keith's absence. After a few drinks, a fascinating power-struggle and sex-struggle fuelled by Vince's girlfriend Fleur (Gillian Bevan) develops and we have left conventional farce a long way behind as we watch a kind of up-dated adult version of Peter Pan with Vince as a modern Captain Hook and the quietist Alistair forced into violence when his wife is made to walk the plank. To ram home his point the playwright calls their final destination Armageddon Bridge. The last half an hour of this play is going to give trouble to many of Ayckbourn's loyal admirers. It may well be the most daring thing he has done."
(Financial Times, 14 October 1981)

New Comedy Turns Dark (by Eric Shorter)
"The stage is filled with water. The setting is a riverside, complete with landing stage, grassy banks and capstans. And the chief property is a motor boat which chugs discreetly about the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round at Scarborough to give Alan Ayckbourn his most novel setting yet in his new comedy,
Way Upstream.
This is bound, like nearly all his plays, to sail eventually into the West End. For as well as the fascinating charm of the boat on the water, there is the humour of a comedy about shared holidays: two married couples who go boating for 10 days with only one keen sailor among them, and he has got it all from a book.
But although Mr Ayckbourn has his usual fun with these landlubberly husbands and wives coming to terms with life aboard a cramped two-cabin cruiser, he introduces a third couple. Their intimidating confidence and adventurous morals disconcert not only our holidaymakers but also the nuance of the comedy, which suddenly goes quite dark and devious.
For this mysterious couple take over sexually and nautically the hired vessel and its occupants, as if they were pirates. There is a mutiny. There is violence and bloodshed, and a romantically happy ending.
Mr Ayckbourn has cast portentous shadows over his plays, before: but this time there is something less successful about it as if he sensed that we might be having too cosy a time laughing at the discomforts of these suburban sailors and wanted to shake us into realising that even the most agreeably work-like men, can, when provoked, become heroes.
It shakes us all right, because a drawing room comedy-on-the-water seems to drift up an eerily dangerous creek which borders on fantasy.
But the comedy is for the most part a joyous, and typically perceptive display of the English temperament under strain, struggling to face each challenge with dignity, or ducking out of it ostentatiously. One is hooked from start to finish. And I have never seen the Scarborough company in better form. Under Alan Ayckbourn's own direction. Robin Bowerman, Robin Hertford, Lavinia Bertram, Carole Boyd, Graeme Eton, Gillian Bevan and Susan Uebel show themselves to be an admirable team, suggesting that a permanent company for light comedy, even when it threatens to turn black, can be as important as far more serious drama. Let us hope that when play moves south, it moves with the same players."
(Daily Telegraph, 5 October 1981)

Way Upstream (by Desmond Pratt)
"Ponder for a moment on the last 25 plays* of this master craftsman, and listen to his subjects to appreciate the full agility of mind and variety of thoughts which must populate his "little grey cells."
We have had devastating Christmas celebrations, a traffic jam in Greater London, a mute piano tuner. There have been extra-marital unbliss, disastrous anniversaries, ghastly weekend house-parties, do-it-yourself maniacs and even a house fashioned into a single stage space. Now, in his 26th play*, he leads us aboard a cabin cruiser on a sleepy English river and, I can't not resist the reference, "up the creek."
Trying to unravel the convolutions of an Ayckbourn farce in cold print is a tortuous business.
Here we have a real cabin cruiser on the stage in ten feet of water.** It is taking two business partners and their wives up the fictitious River Orb through seven locks, at each of which an event happens wilder than the one before. Needless to say, the ship's destination is a bridge called Armageddon.
Neither couple are particularly well matched. Keith (Robin Bowerman, in a strong performance of great self-opinion and bombast) assumes the captaincy of the ship as he has the head of the business firm on land.
Carole Boyd, as his wife, has a smooth way of mixing her boredom with her seductive attractions when required into a dangerous cocktail of sex.
The second wife, Lavinia Bertram, has the energy and enthusiasm of a nice infant with petulant outbursts. But it is in her husband Alistair that Ayckbourn has penned one of his wonderful semi-speechless studies of the ineffectual hesitant flounderer, and how beautifully Robin Herford explores his helpless world of unspoken emotion and retains the charming idiocy and insufficiency with a delightfully light touch."
(Yorkshire Post, 5 October 1981)

Way Upstream (by Robin Thornber)
"Surprises teem in Alan Ayckbourn's 26th play*, from the moment you walk into the auditorium of Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre to find the tiny arena stage flooded and a full-scale cabin cruiser moored to one side. Ayckbourn has always enjoyed toying with the technical limits of the stage and its visual possibilities, teasing out the new stimuli and challenges to the audience's imagination. Each time you wonder what he'll do next. And it's always a surprise.
This time the technical novelty seems to have taken over - there's a danger of the boat stealing the show. It works superbly, chugging into midstream and gloaming over as it passes under the chill of an echoing bridge. Designed by Edward Lipscomb and lit by Francis Lynch, the boat earns a round of applause for the stage crew.
But the boat is only the first in a series of surprises in this strange saga. If it's visually a commercial for the Inland Waterways Association, philosophically it's a plug for the soggy centrism of the Social Democratic Party. It's the first time Ayckbourn has been so politically explicit.***
The boat is the setting for a holiday cruise up the River Orb for two couples, one bossy and assertive, the other sensitive and put-upon. They're partners in a firm that makes fancy goods, and while the bosses are away, their workers take over the factory. Meeting his secretary for daily up-dating, Keith (Robin Bowerman) is for taking them on, his wife June (Carole Boyd) just resents the intrusion.
But then the play makes another new departure for Ayckbourn, from cosily familiar naturalism into an almost mystical world of fantasy. Normally all his characters are pathetically flawed. Here for the first time, we meet real, hard evil. Drifting bully Vince (Graeme Eton) and his titled playgirl friend Fleur (Gillian Bevan) move in and take over the boat.
Nice, reasonable, and ineffectual, like you and me, Alistair (Robin Herford) and Emma (Lavinia Bertram) are the only credible characters in the play. Faced with unreason - aggressive greed on the one hand and violent anarchy on the other - they are forced to assert themselves, and finally emerge alone into the sunlit haven beyond Armageddon Bridge, where they strip off to jump hand-in-hand into the water - the tasteful nudity being another first for Ayckbourn.
One other difference. Usually when Ayckbourn directs his own plays the build-up of historical farce carries you over any minor faults in the writing or production. Without it, every lull and misplaced intonation is irritatingly laid bare."
(The Guardian, 5 October 1981)

Way Upstream (by David Jeffels)
"Prolific playwright Alan Ayckbourn has produced the biggest shock of his 26-hit play* career by introducing full frontal nudity into his latest play at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.
But produced as it is in the closing moments of
Way Upstream with Robin Herford and Lavinia Bertram poised artistically on the edge of a boat as they simulate a dive into the river, it provides the ideal ending to a story of traumas between married couples, business partners and friends.
Ayckbourn has again turned to his familiar and successful recipe, but
Way Upstream tended to wane after its initial impact. The pace slackened and the characters became a little monotonous. However, it has some superbly funny lines and great turns of phrase in typical Ayckbourn style.
The entire play is set on a holiday river boat with two couples not exactly compatible either individually or collectively. Robin Bowerman is brilliant as the self-appointed skipper who succeeds in irritating his crew to the point of mutiny. Robin Herford as the weak submissive partner both in marriage and business is most impressive.
Carole Boyd had some superb lines which she used to the full, while Lavinia Bertram gave a very convincing performance as a wife beleaguered by a husband lacking authority and drive.
Susan Uebel was delightful as the company secretary who turned up at every other lock to report on crises at the factory, while Graeme Eton worked hard - probably too hard - as the suave experienced boating expert who joins the crew. He hit every line - to the detriment of the dialogue, as something should have been retained for the tenser moments.
Gillian Bevan is his sophisticated partner in crime, and she was well cast in this production, directed by Ayckbourn and brilliantly designed by Edward Lipscomb.
Like almost all his other plays,
Way Upstream is certainly destined for the West End, but should receive some tightening up and adjustments if it is to be as successful as his previous works."
(The Stage, 15 October 1981)

* Way Upstream is Alan Ayckbourn's 27th full length play.
** The theatre was not flooded to the depth of ten feet, it is probably a mis-type for inches, as Alan Ayckbourn has said the depth of the water was 10 inches for the original production.
*** This is entirely Thornber's own interpretation and - misplaced - conjecture. Alan Ayckbourn has always stated the play is not Political and felt that critics who compared it to the rise of the Social Democrat Party were taking a very small view of the play and not appreciative of the play's actual themes.

All reviews are copyright of the respective publication.