Absurd Person Singular is Alan Ayckbourn’s most successful play. It has had a lot of competition from his other work now that it is forty years old but the anniversary production, directed by Ayckbourn himself, shows with great precision exactly why this is. Of course it is hilarious, the second act is widely regarded as one of the funniest ever written for the stage, but what is outstanding about this production is that we see the darkness- the sheer viciousness even- that lies behind what we are laughing at. This is Ayckbourn’s stock in trade and in Absurd Person Singular he shows us the cruelty and flat incomprehension at the heart of male female relationships without any mercy. Of course we laugh, but it is laughter which has a basic recognition of the truth of this at its heart. We have all been there and we are well aware that it isn’t funny but that doesn’t stop us laughing. It is a kind of release. Right through the second act the repeated attempts of a desperate wife to commit suicide are unrecognised and misunderstood by those around her, including her husband, even though his behaviour has already been clearly shown to be the reason for it. It should be horrifying, and it is, but the genius of this play is that it can be just that- and still be riotously funny at the same time. There is something about being shown unpleasant truths about human relationships while you are laughing at them with an open heart that really makes the truth sink in. On a wider level we are also given a morality tale which examines class mobility and the way that money and success brings with it the power to use and abuse others.
The play makes great demands on its cast. Farce needs to be played with absolute truth, no matter how much the audience is falling apart. Those on stage are living a real life, however absurd- they are not making jokes. This takes great concentration and focus, and the six actors in this production never lose sight of the fact that they must mean what they say. It takes place in three different kitchens on three consecutive Christmas Eves and we see the rise of the Hopcrofts, the unpleasant, intellectually limited and bullying Sidney and his downtrodden wife Jane, the descent of the well to do banker Ronald Brewster Wright as his wife Marion sinks into alcoholism, and the tribulations of Geoffery and Eva Jackson whose relationship transforms after the crisis at the centre of the play as Geoffery’s architectural career runs into trouble and Eva finds a new strength of her own. This production has a very strong cast. The Hopcrofts, nicely played by Ben Porter and Laura Doddington, are quite chilling in the final act as they force everybody to dance to their tune and exert their new found power, Ayesha Antoine and Richard Stacey are both masters of the art of showing us their thoughts even when they do not speak them out loud, and Bill Champion and Sarah Parks lay bare the descent of the Brewster Wrights with startling power. There is a great moment when we see Marion in the third act as she enters, blind drunk and in disarray, a far cry from the controlled and patronising woman who strolled around the Brewster Wright’s kitchen, and the fact that her husband quite genuinely has no idea why this has happened or what to do about it is very moving.
You would expect Alan Ayckbourn to know exactly how this play should be directed and of course he does. I am glad that he has had the chance to see some of his best work back on stage after a long career. It must have brought back memories for him and also given him great satisfaction to see how well it still works. It was interesting to see the stage management team at work in the round too, carrying out two complete set changes with great speed and skill. I was very glad to have had the chance to see it again and judging from the fact that the Thursday matinee I was at, one quite late in the run, was sold out, so was Scarborough.