The fact that Michael Palin is the author of the latest play produced by the Thespians leads us to expect a subtle but somewhat surreal comedy, full of absurdist elements.
Python territory, in other words.
In fact, we enter Ayckbourn country, with a bittersweet (perhaps more bitter than sweet) comedy drama about Stephen Febble, a middle-aged grouch – only happy when slumped in his armchair with the telly, the Daily Telegraph and glass of whisky – facing up to the awful prospect of a weekend visit by his daughter, her dull husband and their brattish child.
The neighbours and their guest, a kind of New Age chiropodist, also come calling for a dinner party which is subverted by the increasingly drunken and abusive Stephen.
So far, The Weekend seems to be playing it for laughs – not all that successfully, to be honest – but then it turns on a sixpence and the last act is all about Stephen’s existential angst as we learn something of his lifelong depression, status anxiety and the motives for his pathological curmudgeonliness.
There is an abrupt and quite startling gear change, in fact, when Stephen, played by Stuart Davison suddenly shouts at his long suffering wife Virginia (Susan Saville) and this is the prelude to a confessional scene which leads to a redemptive if somewhat sentimentalised ending.
The play has a cast of nine but The Weekend is essentially a study of Stephen and in this role Stuart Davison holds the stage well, managing a skilled transition from faintly amusing grouch to faintly threatening drunk.
There is a scene in which Stephen’s son-in-law Alan (Michael Sutton) turns out to be not quite the crashing bore we imagined, and there are hints of extramarital liaison and local government corruption attached to some of the other characters, but apart from Stephen everybody else is sketched in and we never even get truly to the bottom of his personality disorder.
The Weekend is directed by Keith Royston, and the cast, competent throughout, is completed by Louise Cooper as Diana, Paige Shaw as Charlotte, Andrew Rea as Duff, Miriam Marsden as Bridget, Matthew Fairhead as Hugh and Lynne Whitaker as Mrs Finlay, a cleaner who, we are told, comes from a family of strict Marxist-Leninists, although the comedy potential of her character is not developed.
Michael Palin is a versatile actor-author-presenter who has many virtues and The Weekend is his only stage work. We have not lost a great playwright.
I rather wish that the Thespians had decided to explore middle class angst via Ayckbourn.
The Weekend runs until Saturday, when there is also a matinee performance.