'One can tell a great deal from people’s bedrooms'
Bedroom Farce by Alan Ayckbourne
Production of a play is a project that involves many specialists, but we often forget about those whose work remains behind the scenes, such as lighting and sound directors, costume and set designers. Yet they play an enormous role in our perception of the production. In Alan Ayckbourn’s play Bedroom Farce directed by Sir Peter Hall decorations are of great importance, to the extent that they begin to tell a story even before the actors come on stage. Therefore Simon Higlett deserves special praise for designing this original set. Having three separate bedrooms on stage can create problems, such as distraction and interruption of the narrative, but the designer manages to keep the episodes connected and the story flowing smoothly. The sets are not too busy with objects, but every detail is relevant to providing context for the play and giving the audience some background information about each of the families. In this production stage design enhances the theatrical experience of the audience by pointing out the differences between generations, gender roles, and temperaments of the characters, by highlighting the themes of the play and sharpening its comic points.
The audience is first invited into Ernest and Delia’s bedroom. In the script Alan Ayckbourne describes their bedroom as “large and Victorian” and old-fashioned. Besides this general description he does not give the reader any further detail on the style or decoration of the room. From the text we get an impression of a lifelong relationship, where passion and arguments have given way to mutually comfortable habits. For example, when Delia takes a long time to put on her make-up, Ernest does not even try to complain, because ling experience tells him that “impatience gets him nowhere” (1), because Delia is the head in their marriage. Furthermore, Delia advises her husband on tipping (9 and16) and orders him to prepare hot cocoa when Susannah comes (36). In the production, the concept of female dominance is reinforced by the design of their bedroom and it is thought through to the very last detail.
In contrast with scarce description of Delia and Ernest’s bedroom that we get from the text, Simon Higlett creates a very vivid picture of the life of this old matriarchal family. Everything in their bedroom from wall paper to curtains seems to have been picked out by Delia. In fact, there is not a single object that clearly belongs to her husband Ernest. Delia’s vanity table with a big mirror takes a central position in the room, featuring numerous items of cosmetics; a big double bed is covered with pink satin comforter; the wall paper is of red tones with floral patterns and the puff chair is strewn with big flowers. To cap it all, there is a drawing of a rose above the bed. The other thing that this bedroom portrays is comfort and functionality: there is a carpet on the floor, a waste basket by the dressing table, a box of Kleenex on the bed-side table. Notice also that each spouse has their own night stand and a set of lamp. There are even two hooks on the door for two bath robes. These trivial things are easily overseen, but their absence can create irritation with one another (as happens with Nick and Jan who argue over switching off the light later in the play (46)). But this old couple has long since figured out all these trifles and have built a comfortable environment for themselves. They have learned to adapt to each other and ignore the things that might annoy them.
Nick and Jan, on the other hand, have not yet passed this barrier. Their newlywed blindness period is over and they are beginning to see all each other’s flaws. In the text this is illustrated primarily through dialogue: Jan looses patience with Nick for whining about his back (6) and he confesses to Trevor that Jan is “totally self-obsessed, erratic, bad-tempered and unreliable” (41). In the production stage design provides visual aid for understanding the stage of their relationship. Their bedroom is properly furnished, but not so comfortable yet, still new and trendy. There are many things of different style: an antique piece, a bright glass plate, and black and-white retro photographs. This set shows that Nick and Jan have not figured out their tastes yet, nor are they sure who is the leader in their family. The stage director emphasizes this point by creating a gender-neutral setting through the choice of the color scheme (white, yellow, and green) and props. The female side is represented by a small mirror (unlike Delia’s), a few cosmetics and perhaps that funny plate, but Nick’s things are also here (books, papers, and his beloved telephone). From this we can see that authority is equally distributed in their marriage.
Kate and Malcolm’s bedroom is where they spend most of their time. Like their marriage, it is hectic and inexperienced. The text portrays them as a happy couple. The fact that the bed remains unmade by 7 pm (Alan Ayckbourne indicates this time as the beginning of action) suggests that they only recently left it. It is not by accident that all the “foreign bodies” (8) are being hidden there – the intention is to find them and have a laugh about it. Another good indication of a happy marriage that the author provides directly in the text is their merry, playful attitude towards everything: spraying each other with shaving cream does not anger either of them (10) (I bet Nick would get mad if Jan spoiled his evening shirt), nor does the unhygienic act of putting a brush in the bathtub (9), nor even that awkward situation when undressed Kate hides under the blanket when guests arrive (12). But the stage design gives the audience further information about their life beyond what the script does.
This bedroom is considerably smaller, quite chaotic, and not very comfortable for living – but the happy lovebirds do not seem to notice it. The furniture is very minimal: there is only a simple bed with plain blue covers, one bedside table and one light – saying that they still function as one body in their fresh love. Their bed looks rather like a children’s twin bed – and its owners indeed remind us of children in their mischievous pranks. The colors of the bedroom are shades of blue, which suggests a strong male presence. Malcolm is certainly not a tyrant, but Kate lets him play the role of the husband to the fullest (which he greatly enjoys): he starts putting up a cabinet in the middle of the night (Act 2), and although it turns out to be a disaster, she expresses joy and encourages him as a loving wife would. Malcolm’s enthusiasm for building this love in combination with lack of skill adds much humor to his character. The designer carefully planted other details of the bedroom to emphasize Malcolm’s inaptitude for mechanical work: the wallpaper is partly ripped, the wires hang from the skewed light switch, and the door is painted blue but the frame is still white!
The creative work of stage designer adds much to the depth of characters, enhances the contrasts between them, and even enriches the humor of the play. Susannah and Trevor are the only couple whose bedroom is not shown – probably because there is nothing to show. Their personal life is so empty that they avoid spending time together in the bedroom. In her last lines Susannah pledges to make their house “more of a home” (58) after they decide to have a fresh start. This again reinforces the concept that families create their environment according to their tastes, lifestyle, and personalities and therefore bedrooms can tell what kind of relationship (if any) they are in. There could not be a better occasion for making use of stage design than in a production with this kind of central idea.