Have you ever done something stupid, or completely out of character, in the name of love? Kings have abdicated for it, heroes have died for it and Meatloaf would do anything for it (but not that). In his 1997 play Things We Do For Love, Alan Ayckbourn invites us into a London household to expose the blinding power that love – or lust – holds over four characters living together in close proximity.
It’s a humorous caricature of human relationships, revealing once again Ayckbourn’s knack for holding up a mirror to ourselves and making us laugh at our imperfections and the things we do, or wouldn’t do, for love.
Brusque, prickly Barbara lives alone in her immaculate flat, with no need of a man to mess up her cushions or sit on her delicate, ornamental chairs. Into the flat above bounces Nikki (Natalie Imbruglia), an old school chum fresh out of a nasty relationship and into the arms of a new love, Hamish. Laid back, Scottish and vegetarian, Hamish is everything Barbara dislikes in a man, while her bossiness and pretentious tea selection does little to endear her to him. Sure enough, their mutual dislike turns into passion – sending the whole household into disarray.
A unique and inspired set allows the drama to unfold with great effect: while we see the whole cross-section of Barbara’s flat, we also glimpse, tantilisingly, the bottom half of the flat upstairs and the top of the flat below. It’s a wonderful comic device and brings to mind even more so the idea of the playwright manipulating his characters like dolls in a doll’s house.
While the first few scenes feel a little sluggish, the pace soon picks up and sparks fly as Barbara and Hamish lock horns over tea and nibbles, Nikki awkwardly striving to keep the peace. There are some delicious moments of irony, and Gilbert, the well-meaning postman who lives downstairs, provides some of the greatest, most unexpected laughs as his own secret passion is uncovered.
There’s one jarring moment, however, as Ayckbourn makes a stab at exploring the dark, destructive side of attraction through a strangely jovial fight scene between two lovers. This lengthy display of domestic violence, for all its jokes (indeed, his usually faultless comedy feels uncomfortably misplaced here), is a heavy-handed vehicle for demonstrating how love has turned the pair into animals. The result is a little too Punch and Judy for me.
There’s plenty to entertain in this rollicking bedroom farce which offers further proof of Ayckbourn’s power to surprise and delight. Making her stage debut, Natalie Imbruglia is charming as the girlish, doting Nikki, and Claire Price succeeds in the seemingly impossible task of making Barbara intolerable, untouchable and deeply vulnerable. A laugh-out-loud comedy and a worthwhile watch; not least to find out what postman Gilbert is quietly painting on his ceiling.
Runs 5-10 May, 7.45pm (2.30pm Thur & Sat). Tickets from £15.