THE CREW – A group of four unhappy friends; two couples on a boating holiday, but with marital problems. Collectively they are the middle-class, spoon-fed, trusting British public. Here, they’re a naïve sitting duck, waiting to be occupied, infected and their lives taken over by a deadly virus. As the action unfolds, they can each be seen in terms of differing public attitudes towards dangerous circumstances:
KEITH TAYLOR – Essentially a ‘conventional sceptic’. His own man. Secure in himself and his own destiny, but mistrustful of others and extremely self-unaware. He’s likely to be a pillar of his local community and a Tory voter.
The controlling partner of a novelty goods factory, Keith is the dominant mover, shaker and engine of the company through sheer force of personality. Here on holiday, what he views as his workplace ‘leadership skills’ are transferred across from head of the company to ‘skipper of the boat’, a dominant role which is self-taught from a manual. He’s supremely confident until the virus appears, and his amateur skippering “business” is quickly closed down. Upon registering the threat, Keith instantly sees a rival and begins harbouring a deep mistrust. His misgivings intensify as time goes on, but soon he is usurped as leader and brought under the virus’s control through its skilful, ‘democratic’ manipulation of his wife and friends.
JUNE TAYLOR – Keith’s wife. A firm fan of the virus. She has no concerns at all, seeing it not as a threat but as attractive, deeply alluring and a powerful entity which needs to be accommodated, respected and understood. June is the only member of the crew who is defensive and sympathetic towards it. Her admiration – and later lust for it – causes her to cheat on her husband when he’s away at the factory. Right from the start of the outbreak, June is a staunch believer, and as time passes, she surrenders all resistance and becomes willingly ensnared and infected, with no hope of being rescued, much less cured.
ALISTAIR “I seem to be marooned” WINGATE – A would-be believer, but can never make his mind up. He would only grant his approval of the virus for an easy life, or at least until he can escape back home. Alistair is an equal partner at the factory but with very little control compared to Keith. He is racked by extreme self-doubt and beset with low confidence. Throughout his time on the boat, Alistair is weak, hesitant and easily dominated. He is quietly resentful and suspicious of the virus. How much of that mistrust is through genuine doubt and how much through his own inadequacy never becomes clear. At one point, Alistair is relaxing on the side of the boat, staring into the water. Reaching down quickly, he expertly catches a small fish in his bare hand and releases it, hinting there may be hidden depths, and much more to Alistair than meets the eye.
EMMA WINGATE – Alistair’s wife. Like her husband, she is undemanding, accepting and always prepared to make allowances for other people. Although happy to live in the shadow of Keith and June, she is more self-possessed, composed and tranquil of mind than her husband. Emma is first seen clutching a first aid box and spends the whole time on the boat wearing a lifejacket, a sure sign of her concern over the wisdom of being on this holiday at all. She knows the virus is very real, is quietly petrified of it and takes her own precautions against it. But even Emma’s guard goes down eventually and it becomes clear that given enough time, she seems destined to become infected, controlled and completely dominated, just like June.
VINCE GRANT – The virus and killer disease. A dishonest and disruptive outsider. Charismatic, clever, imperious and manipulative. Very early on, the virus ‘comes to the rescue’ of the marooned boat and its crew. Its vigilant eye soon sees an opportunity to take control, flourish and spread its malign influence among new ‘friends’. Reasonable at first, it invokes mutual trust and co-operation, asking them to work with it. It reassures them that all will be well if everyone performs a different function and keeps things ship shape. If they agree and accept these terms, its broad-ranging boats / river expertise will steer them through.
FLEUR – The vaccine, which comes onto the scene a long time after the initial virus / disease. As regards salvation and a cure for the crew, it quickly becomes clear that all is lost. The vaccine is just another arm of what has now morphed into an ominous threat to public health. As a past conquest of the virus, it’s ‘joined at the hip’, staying close, following barked orders and working under the insidious control of its master. So the vaccine brings absolutely no support or optimism, and no remedy to the spreading malaise. As a treatment, it’s totally ineffective, and it couldn’t hope to repair the damage to public confidence nor ease the disruption caused to everyone’s lives.
Initially, the crew / public are required to place their trust in the virus. As time goes on however, their collective belief wavers as the situation deteriorates. As Skipper, the virus quickly ‘mutates’, becoming ever more menacing as the sinister aspects to its character emerge. Ultimately, the contagion becomes completely uncontrollable, inflicting damage and looming large over everyone. The threat it carries is all-consuming, blighting lives and exposing a group of defenceless land lubbers – cast adrift in unfamiliar surroundings – to their fate. In the end, the virus, disease and vaccine assume total dominance, and become a direct threat to the survival of Alistair, Emma and June.
Until finally, Alistair “We seem to have lost a bit of the camararderie of the river” Wingate comes to their rescue…And finally, for us, there’s no doubt about it, Alistair was given the funniest lines by Mr Ayckbourn…!