COMMITTEE meetings can be like the seventh circle of hell. Bogged down in detail and trivia, staffed by volunteers and jobsworths, and all in a good cause.
It might seem like the stuff of nightmares, but in the hands of one of the greatest living playwrights, it’s the recipe for two hours of comedy that builds and builds and builds.
Ten Times Table was recently staged at The Mill at Sonning, now a new version is in preparation.
Set in the long-since ‘grand’ ballroom of the local Swan Hotel, the committee is preparing for the Pendon Folk Festival, led by excitable chairman Ray. Unfortunately, for Ray, his calamitous committee quickly divides, as his wife Helen has a bone to pick.
Add a Marxist schoolteacher, a military dog-breeder and an octogenarian secretary, and the table is set for a tumultuous comedy by committee, with a climax that has to be seen to be believed.
It opens on Tuesday at the Theatre Royal Windsor, where it will enjoy a 10-day run ahead of a national tour.
Directed by Robin Herford, who starred in one of the original productions of Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy, the stellar cast includes Robert Daws, Deborah Grant, Gemma Oaten, Robert Duncan, Mark Curry, Craig Gazet and Elizabeth Power.
All have had success on TV and on stage, and each brings something different to the committee table.
Emmerdale actor Gemma can’t wait to get started.
“I’m very well versed in Ayckbourn,” she says in a break from rehearsals. “I was in another play here about two years ago. It’s very nice to come back to Windsor and to take [Ten Times Table] on its first national tour. It’s very exciting.”
And it is the travelling that helped get Gemma signed on the dotted line.
“When you in TV, you’re stuck in the studios which are in the same place,” the actor, who also appeared in Holby City. “I’m really looking forward to visiting places like Edinburgh and Dublin, Bath – some really lovely places.
“And we’re going north to Sheffield and Hull, so I can see my Mum and Dad – and bring them my washing!”
Gemma says that her castmates are getting on brilliantly, not least actors such as Robert Daws who is no stranger to farces, while former Blue Peter presenter Mark Curry is also aplomb with comedy roles.
“They are absolutely in their element,” she says. “It’s a masterclass in their presence.
“But they’re also normal people. There are no struggles with this cast, everyone gets on so great.”
And this is helping Gemma with her preparations to play Sophie, a young woman who is heavily influenced by a teacher with Marxist tendencies, much to the chagrin of other committee members.
“Sometimes I’ll doubt myself [as to how I’ve played a scene], but they’ll be really encouraging,” Gemma says of her castmates.
Ten Times Table is one of the rarer plays in the Ayckbourn stable.
“It’s not one of his most performed ones,” Gemma admits. “It’s got a big cast, so taking it on tour is quite an undertaking, especially the logistics of the play.
“But it’s fantastic and so funny. Robert Duncan [who appeared in the sitcom Drop The Dead Donkey] cracks me up. It’s a big challenge to try and keep a straight face, it’s hilarious.”
The committee’s work culminates in the staging of the festival. Gemma says that “audiences will be in for a treat. It’s carnage, it’s just brilliant.”
Sophie is something different for her to play – her Northern accent has to be replaced with received pronunciation for starters. And Sophie is a little shy and unsure.
“Being part of the committee is a huge thing for her,” Gemma says. “If she says it, she means it.
“She’s going on a journey, she’s a lot more naive in her life experiences.
“I’ve been looking for connections between her and myself. When you get to the nitty-gritty, there’s a lot that I can relate to, she’s a very layered character.”
And this is something that goes throughout the characters in the play.
“There’s a lot of textures and layers to each of them, which makes it a joy to see,” she explains. “The first half is quite static, but Ayckbourn is brilliant at observing human beings. Every audience member will be able to identify with the committee members.”
Gemma says that the rehearsals have gone really well because director Robin understands the source material so well.
“It’s lovely to have a director who knows Alan really well,” she says.
“And this play has something for everyone. You can relate to every single character.
“With Ten Times Table, you’ve got two hours of utter escapism. The audience is in for a real treat.”
Ten Times Table is performed at the Theatre Royal Windsor from Tuesday, October 8 through to Saturday, October 19, ahead of a national tour. For more details, or to book tickets, log on to www.theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk or call the box office on 01753 853 888.