Variations on a Theme is an interesting concept. It’s essentially two very short one act plays with the same actors (John Bird and Frances de la Tour) and the same setting (a park bench) In both cases the story develops from the same line from de la Tour’s character – “Robert’s found out” – and both stories have a twist at the end.
In part one, the two are lovers – meeting in the park after their afternoon of passion the previous day. The bombshell that Robert (her husband) has found about their relationship strikes fear into the heart of Bird’s character. She consoles him that he had to find out sometime, which he disagrees with. “We only met yesterday. Some men get away with it for years. Some men never get found out at all.”
Bird’s character is particularly anxious, since Robert is a television wrestler (the Streatham Strangler) who’s well known for his violent temper. Another cause for concern is what the scandal will do to him – as chairman of the Marriage Guidance Council it’s more than a little embarrassing. “I’m expected to save marriages. You came into my office yesterday for advice. Two hours later we were in bed together, people aren’t going to understand that.”
John Bird is excellent as the twitchy adulterer, constantly looking over his shoulder in case Robert’s lurking in the bushes nearby. Frances de la Tour is equally good as a woman seemingly possessed of a deep passion. However, the twist is that after he’s paid her £5000 to keep his name out of the divorce proceedings, she moves onto the next park bench where it’s clear that there’s another mark who she’s also enjoyed a one night stand with (and presumably she’ll be conning him out of a similar sum of money).
In part two, the pair are a married couple and Robert is their son – who’s found out about the facts of life from a friend. Bird’s character reproaches himself. “It’s a father’s responsibility to tell his son about these things. I failed that boy. I had it all planned about how I was going to tell him. I mean it’s only three months since I brought the rabbits home.” Although, as de la Tour’s character points out, the rabbits were both female, which was a bit of a problem.
It quickly transpires that Bird’s character, despite being a psychiatrist, has something of a hang-up when it comes to sex – so he’s very reluctant to broach the subject with his son. He then wonders if Robert ever saw the two of them in bed. de la Tour’s character thinks not, but Bird’s character isn’t convinced since “you usually have a pillow over your head and I have my eyes shut.”
Eventually he decides to employ a course of aversion therapy on Robert and then bring up the subject in a couple of years time. She then reminds him that it’s Robert’s birthday the following day – when he asks how old he is (nine or ten he thinks) she informs him that he’s twenty three. As they leave the park together, they discuss appropriate presents (she thinks a cowboy suit would be right, whilst he thinks a railway set would be ideal).
Again, Bird and de la Tour are excellent in another two-hander. Had either of the two story ideas been stretched to the whole twenty-five minutes it probably wouldn’t have been as memorable an episode. But spinning two totally different plots from the same opening is what make this stand out a little from the norm.