If Rob Brydon didn't exist, Alan Ayckbourn would probably have invented him. Indeed, watching his 1984 comedy 'A Chorus of Disapproval', it seems like Ayckbourn – absurdly prolific chronicler of smalltown Britain – actually did invent him.
Daffyd, the well-meaning, proudly Welsh and emotionally inadequate leader of the play's Pendon Amateur Light Opera Society, is so close in tone to Brydon's loveable loser persona in the likes of 'Marion and Geoff' to 'The Trip' that it's hard to imagine he needed many pointers from Trevor Nunn, director of this revival.
This is no criticism: Brydon was born to play Daffyd, and his easy warmth lights up Nunn's slightly sterile production, even if he never quite gets the pathos flowing later on.
Ayckbourn has a dry sense of humour and Nunn has a dry – or at least super-meticulous – style of direction. It's not always the best combination: as the society's production of 'The Beggar's Opera' is thrown into disarray when deceptively shy newcomer Guy (Nigel Harman) becomes romantically entangled with Daffyd's wife Hannah (Ashley Jensen) and local maneater Fay (a sexy, scene-stealing Daisy Beaumont), the overall impression is more ordered collapse than out-and-out pandemonium. At one point, somebody kicks Daffyd in the balls and it isn't milked for a laugh, which seems wrong.
But Nunn has the measure of Ayckbourn's more arid jokes: an understated scene in which Guy accidentally stumbles onto Pendon's swingers' circuit is like a brilliant outtake from 'Abigail's Party', while the terser one-liners are phenomenal. And if Nunn doesn't make this as fun as some directors might, he plots a clear path through a many layered play and never sneers at Daffyd and co's am-dram endeavours.
After his Olivier-winning turn in 'Shrek the Musical', former 'EastEnder' Harman continues to grow: his newcomer, Guy, remains a decent, even innocent figure throughout, which stops everything descending into a sex farce. It's a minor part for her first stage role in over a decade, but Jensen is magnetic, bringing luminescent world weariness to Daffyd's put-upon wife.
Nunn's precise, reserved, period-specific production feels a little musty. But it's still an intelligent revival of a beautifully crafted play, and Brydon's effortless comic charisma can be relied on to freshen the air.