“CONFUSING” was the snap verdict from one theatre-goer after Tuesday's opening night at the Civic.
It’s easy to see why Alan Ayckbourn’s Family Circles could leave you dizzy, such is the whirlwind of the final act.
But it’s the challenging structure, with characters switching partners in the space of a few moments come the final act, that saves the domestic drama from descending into a humdrum series of family arguments.
At the centre of the family circle drawn by Rotheham Rep is clucky mum Emma (Sarah Cleverley), whose grumpy husband Edward (Kevin Jackson) apparently cares more for his beloved dahlias than for her.
Despite Emma’s insistence their anniversary weekend be “a happy occasion”, there’s no escaping the fact relations between the parents and the three daughters visiting with their partners for a family meal out are strained at best.
There’s stressed-out, whiny Jenny (Polly Lovegrove), accompanied by the boorish Oliver (Alex Wilson), seething Polly (Leah Culf) and her neurotic, indigestion-riddled husband David (Richard Wilshaw) plus devilish Deidre (Yvette Sayles) and unsuspecting new boyfriend James (Stephen Coward).
It soon becomes clear none of the couples’ romantic or family relationships is harmonious.
Cue a cavalcade of shouting, bitching and bickering.
Some of the audience was amused by the verbal arrows being fired but it all felt a bit “EastEnders” to me — a flood of vitriol and a drought of affection.
When the head of the family does briefly appear, he’s in wordless apoplexy over an act of vandalism to his beautiful blooms or to bawl at his errant siblings.
Come the second of four acts, Ayckbourn throws a curve ball by switching the younger couples around — now David is apparently with Deidre, James with Polly etc.
The move doesn’t have a huge impact on the narrative, save to show that these are mostly unhappy, generally unlikeable people (apart from wet blanket David and the pliant, quiet James) whoever they are with.
The discovery Emma and Edward, outwardly content, are scheming to kill each other in various sneaky ways adds a touch of intrigue and makes for a few laughs.
But the bulk of the intended comedy is broader stuff, especially during a second-half spell where Deidre returns home drunk, David almost passes out after drinking something he shouldn’t have and James ends up laid out on the sofa.
But there’s a wake-up call for the audience come the final act — the morning after the shenanigans before — when Ayckbourn has the daughters switching partners in quickfire fashion, all the while keeping the family’s barbed banter coming, a device that comes to a head in a peculiar final flurry.
It’s a clever trick by the playwright and credit is due to joint directors Elaine Demaine and Mark Hone and their cast for keeping all their balls in the air.
Among their number, Wilshaw makes a good fist of the hapless David, Sayles makes for a withering Deidre and Lovegrove nets some sympathy for her turn as harried mum-of-two Jenny.
Coward, given something of a bit-part in the first half, steals a couple of scenes with some enjoyable physical comedy.
And Jackson, criminally under-used before the interval, had me chuckling during the last half-hour, perfectly delivering a string of deadpan zingers.
Amid the coal-black seam of bitter bickering, there are a few diamonds to enjoy.
A coffee at the interval might be an idea, though.