After an absence of seventeen years, Murray (Richard Stacey) returns home from an unnamed war, hailed by local media for his heroics during a street fight near and inside a children’s hospital. With his young bride, the Eastern European refugee Baba (Evelyn Hoskins), he has big plans involving his father’s run-down hotel, The Bird of Prey. But Murray’s modest, nice guy act doesn’t hold among those who know him best: his childhood friend, Brad (Stephen Billington), and his ex-fiancee, now mayor and property dealer, Alice (Elizabeth Boag). Murray left Alice, who originally dated Brad, under suspicious circumstances at the altar, and Brad’s schoolboy competitiveness leads him to bet Alice’s husband, Derek (Russell Dixon), that he can bed Baba “inside a fortnight.”
Hero’s Welcome is typical of late Alan Ayckbourn, a humorous but sober account of a small town falling apart once an outsider returns and inadvertently resurrects old skeletons. Brad’s misanthropy is the driving force here; his indefatigable drive to win (and his cruelty when he does) disrupts this small circle of acquaintances who primarily want to live in peace. Though it is often depressing—Brad would fit right in with Neil LaBute’s characters—there is a tenderness and sympathy that is lacking in that other playwright’s work.
Derek, for example, spends much of his time onstage constructing and enjoying a house full of model trains; he is downright gleeful each time they are “bang on time,” stopping dead in his tracks to wave his handkerchief at the fictional passengers even when he is in the middle of a tirade. This control over space, a space that one owns, is common in Hero’s Welcome, though it plays out more dramatically between Murray and Alice, who wants his eyesore hotel demolished. Of course, Derek is not one-dimensional, either; his nervous friendliness and his desire to please prove as destructive as anything else, and it is a little unsettling to see how content he becomes when those around him are even more helpless than he.
As my disproportionate attention to Derek may suggest, Mr. Dixon gives the play’s standout performance. I imagine writing manipulators and sociopaths is quite rewarding, but I am always more impressed by characters who are convincingly good and sincere. “I don’t mind losing,” Derek tells Brad after Murray beats the two of them shooting clay pigeons. “I quite enjoy it, really … It’s just I enjoy watching the other feller winning. It gives him so much pleasure winning, that sort of gives me pleasure, as well.” Mr. Dixon, schlubby, good natured, positively emanates Derek’s goodness. In one scene, he attempts to share in a lascivious laugh with Brad, but the sound that comes out of his mouth instead resembles a kind of uncomfortable gargling.
Most reviews will mention that Hero’s Welcome is Mr. Ayckbourn’s seventy-ninth play, which he is directing at 59E59 in repertory with his seventeenth, Confusions. There are, of course, throughlines—a thematic concern for the treatment of women by men, a penchant for creative staging—but most impressive is his range. While Confusions is light fare, playing like a sitcom from the ‘seventies, Hero’s Welcome demonstrates a profound understanding of quiet, upper-middle-class suffering. Some great playwrights produce the same play over and over again, and these tend to be the ones we valorize, since we can assemble something of an author’s personality from the collected works. Others, endlessly curious and experimental, cover all sorts of tones and genres, which unfairly minimizes them in the public’s estimation; the paltry number of Ayckbourn revivals in the U.S., with the exception of those regularly at 59E59, is proof of this fact, and Hero’s Welcome proof that it is a problem in need of a remedy.