A rather sorry affair

Predictable and lacking in frisson, this sex comedy doesn't hit the spot

<strong>Same Time Next Ye

Same Time Next Year by Bernard Slade, which has just opened at the Mill at Sonning, is one of those North American comedies that never quite rolls over and admits it is dead. It has been bouncing around the world in various guises, including an Oscar-nominated film, for more than 30 years now, and is beginning to look its age.

The title effectively explains what is going on. George and Doris, who are both married to other people, find themselves making eyes at one another when dining solo at a restaurant. The flirting progresses, and they end up in a hotel bedroom. And the next year, and the next.

Their tryst goes no further than this annual dirty weekend, yet, by visiting them at five-yearly intervals from 1951 to 1975, the play aims to show how their characters and relationship develop through a wealth of shared experiences, not least a (highly improbable) moment when Doris (Shona Lindsay) goes into labour and is safely delivered by George (Steven Pacey).

If I must be honest, the play is a bit warm-bath-like. This is an annual shagfest, yet the air in the hotel room never crackles with the frisson of anticipation that one would expect it surely must. There is no notion of the eroticism inherent in unauthorised sex, and zero sense of the risk that either party is taking by continuing the arrangement. Doris's husband does ring up at one point, but there is no real threat of him ever turning up at the front door.

Slade clearly wanted to evoke the big American picture through the lives of two ordinary American citizens, but unfortunately his play is bound into such a formal conceit that it never breaks free from the steel grip of stereotype.

To depict the whirlwind of Women's Liberation, Doris is an airhead, then she is a bookworm, then she is a hippie-ish Vietnam protester sans bra. Then she goes on to become a highly successful businesswoman and a whiz with figures. She has a great array of historically accurate outfits, ranging from Fifties chick to Jane Fonda via Sandie Shaw, but because her character is so locked in to Slade's time chart, one doubts she has ever actually lived through any of the events she is referring to.

George goes on a rather less dramatic, but equally obvious arc: he starts out being rather formally buttoned up, then he has a male crisis, then he has a parenting crisis, then he has a woman crisis.

Just in case you live on Mars, and so would miss the social references of seamed stockings, headbands, shoulder pads, et cetera, Alvin Rakoff's production hammers home the passing of time with a tiresome name-that-year jingle at each scene change, coupled with radio news clips from the archive of the bleeding obvious (the Vietnam war was a big event).

The play's saving grace is that it does manage to crowbar a few clever human observations, as Doris and George bonk through the years. As part of their annual routine, they swap anecdotes about their unseen life partners, which of course reminds the audience about those delightful moments in a long marriage (playing under the table with the kids, coping with unemployment, female incontinence), and perhaps explains why Doris and George aren't married to each other.

It also takes a very non-judgemental look at extramarital sex, in a Neil Simonish way. "If you're not having a certain amount of guilt, you are missing out on half the fun" is one of the best lines.

As Doris, Lindsay never really manages to emerge from the curse of two decades in ladies' fashions, but Pacey, who can express a portmanteau of fleeting emotions on his malleable face if necessary (plus, he is rather good at pretending to play cocktail classics on a piano), evinces with some conviction that he is, indeed, a businessman who needs his bit on the side, as he hops in and out of bed in his striped boxers.

All in all, this is a night as traditional and undemanding as the bread-and-butter pudding that the Mill at Sonning famously serves to its audiences before the play begins.

For further information and booking details visit: www.millatsonning.com

Pick of the week

The Rocky Horror Show
Comedy Theatre, London SW1
I got into real trouble with my parents when I went to see this first time round. An evergreen classic.

Twelfth Night
Old Vic, London SE1
Ed Hall's all-male production of Shakespeare's comedy.

Spamalot
Palace Theatre, London W1
If only to see whether Simon Russell Beale can pull off capering around as mad King Arthur.

Rosie Millard was previously Arts Editor for the NS and a Theatre Critic. She was the Arts Correspondent for BBC News for 10 years and is now a broadsheet columnist. She lives in London with heaps of small children, which may partially explain her love of going to the theatre.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sex and politics