REVIEW: Way Upstream, Chichester Festival Theatre, until May 16.

Way Upstream. Photography by Simon Annand
Way Upstream. Photography by Simon Annand

Did we really just see someone dive over the side of a boat on the Festival Theatre stage and disappear into a river?

There can never have been a more remarkable start to a CFT summer season than the one offered here – an extraordinarily-ambitious piece of staging which comfortably manages to mask the fact – as with Neville’s Island a couple of years ago – that this is a less than extraordinary play.

Way Upstream is the comic tale of two couples who go off for what should be an idyllic couple of weeks on the river. As one of the characters says, life afloat is like the whole of life in miniature, and so it proves as all the undercurrents bubble up to the surface.

Sarah Parish is terrific as June, utterly appalled by the bossy bumptiousness of her husband Keith (Peter Forbes), the trip’s self-appointed skipper. Almost lost in their wake are Mr and Mrs Timid, Emma (Jill Halfpenny) and Alistair (Jason Hughes), a man which nothing can seem to provoke to anything.

All the tensions are simmering away nicely by the time playwright Alan Acykbourn throws in his final ingredient, the supremely-capable but is-he-what-he-says-he-is Vince, the kind of character routinely picked up by unsuspecting couples in countless thrillers down the decades. Jason Durr is excellent as the supposedly-skilled sailor who soons starts to hint at a distinctly-sinister side. June is blinded by his charms; Emma much less so. Keith storms off in a strop. So is it down to Alistair to save the day?

The bickering is beautifully done, and all the performances are excellent, definitely lifting a play which just slightly seems to lose its way towards the end, losing interest in some of its own characters and growing ever stranger as it struggles to conclude. But really, it hardly matters. In this particular instance, the play really isn’t the thing. It’s the production that counts with a show which is all about showing off the CFT’s huge new capabilities post-redevelopment, and it does so quite brilliantly.

Your interest might to start to wane in some of the characters, but it certainly won’t in the production as you sit there wondering “Just how on earth did they do that?” on the most astonishing of sets. Huge credit to director to director Nadia Fall for masterminding a mini technical miracle.

Phil Hewitt