A Brief History of Women. Stephen Joseph Theatre. 14-09-17

Production photograph by Tony Bartholomew.

Alan Ayckbourn has had a long and productive career and produced over seventy full length plays. The best of his works are accepted as classics of their time, still widely produced, and in his late seventies he is still writing. One of the great pleasures of seeing his latest play, A Brief History of Women, “a comedy in four parts about an unremarkable man and the remarkable women who loved him, left him, or lost him”, is being able to see how his work has changed over the years. There is a gentle, wistful tone which has replaced the sharp edge that skewered the middle classes so expertly and produced some of the funniest visual comedy of the last century. This brings both gains and losses, as change always does. The comedy in A Brief History of Women is sometimes the weakest element. While the matinee audience enjoyed joining in with the panto section the off stage children in rehearsal didn’t really convince me in the way that Ayckbourn’s off stage characters have in the past and it all seemed a bit broad brush and derivative. At his best the pin point accuracy of Ayckbourn’s comedy makes you laugh and wince at the same time. In contrast there is sometimes great delicacy in the writing, particularly when the central character, Anthony and the woman who will become his wife fall in love, and in the final scene. There is real heart, an elegaic quality to the writing at times, which I really enjoyed.

Having got the losses out of the way I am going to concentrate on the gains as there are plenty of them. When I took my seat and looked down at the set it felt as though I had come home. Four areas of a large house, a house which almost becomes an additional character, were marked out on the floor of the stage in a way that we have seen often over the years, cleverly characterised without being cluttered. The action of the play sees the house go through several changes over the lifetime of the central character, and as time progressed this was marked by small telling set changes- one of which drew a round of applause after it was completed. It was a small space set out with great skill to tell a story by designer Kevin Jenkins, working alongside someone who knows the SJT better than anyone else will ever know it. We were in safe hands. Ayckbourn’s own direction was exemplary- it was a joy to see the accuracy with which the action tracked the hired servant who was moving from space to space and the fast moving scenes had a filmic quality as the lights rose and dimmed, following him, while the action in other areas went on unseen. The actors movements and the sound effects of doors as they opened and closed were beautifully synchronised and what could easily have been messy and confusing in lesser hands rang out clear as a bell. That may sound like a small detail but trust me it isn’t. There were some lovely sequences between scenes later in the play, when the big house had become a school, which were almost dance like in their precision and music was used to set a mood and underscore emotion right through the play in a way that really worked.

The actors work beautifully as a company. Each of them plays contrasting parts during the course of the play, held together by a charming, truthful, central performance from Antony Eden as Anthony Spate. This is a gentle, dignified man, a good person, and it takes an actor of real quality to play goodness. There is nothing to hide behind- you just have to be. The play would not have worked without him.

I came away from this production feeling quite nostalgic, looking back at changes, both at the SJT and my own life, and counting myself lucky to have been able to see a new Ayckbourn play one more time.

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Henceforward. Stephen Joseph Theatre. 29-09-16

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Bill Champion as Jerome. Production photograph by Tony Bartholomew.

I saw the first production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Henceforward at the Stephen Joseph in 1987 when I was in my twenties. A lot has happened to both me and the theatre since then. The revival at the SJT this year is quite a brave thing to do in some ways. The play was very successful both in Scarborough and in London where it won the Evening Standard award for best comedy when it transferred to the West End with Ian McKellen and Jane Asher. It would have been easy to leave it safely in the past, resting on its laurels, but I’m glad they didn’t. It made a big impression on me at the time. It was the first time that Ayckbourn had introduced science fiction into one of his plays- I loved NAN300F- Barry McCarthy was great as the lead character, Jerome, along with Serena Evans as Zoe and I still have a strong flashbulb memory of the ending in the original production. That doesn’t always happen. I saw plays thirty years ago that I can barely remember now. Every now and again if they have revived an Ayckbourn that I didn’t like nearly as much I have grumbled that they should give Henceforward another production- this made seeing it again a bit like high noon- how is it after all those years? Was my young self right? Was I going to be disappointed?

It remains a very clever idea- more successful still, for me, than some of the later futuristic Ayckbourn plays. It is set in a dystopian future where the streets are under mob rule and even opening the front door is dangerous. A composer, Jerome, is trying desperately to find his creative energy again and write, holed up in a tower block with only a faulty robot nanny for company. Throughout the play the world outside remains very real- a clear and present danger brought to us by videophone and entry security screens. Jerome has asked a young actress up for an interview, hoping that she will play his wife, allowing him to provide a semblance of normality and persuade his real estranged wife to allow him to regain contact with his daughter Geain. He is also desperate to find fuel for his creativity, given his isolation, and he does this by recording sounds- everything in fact- that he hears in the flat to sample in his work. There is both comedy and some heartfelt emotional writing and it is the second aspect that I think has stood the test of time best as the plot plays out.

Bill Champion is very good as Jerome. He is a very intense, truthful actor and you certainly believe in his Jerome as a difficult, gifted man. I liked Laura Matthews as Zoe too. That character needs to bring some lightness and airiness into the room with her to counter everything else that is going on and I particularly liked her first scene where she is clearly both falling apart after being attacked and also desperate to hold onto some normality and do the interview that she has come to do. I loved Jacqueline King as NAN300F but in spite of some very convincing acting as Corinna I didn’t think that the production had really got that character right this time. You need to feel that she and Jerome are meant to be together- that there is still something there, a warmth underneath Corinna’s outer skin of bitterness and frustration, and I didn’t quite.

It was fascinating to see the play again in my middle age. The heart of it has certainly stood the test of time- maybe the character of Mervyn has dated a little but not much else has. Henceforward certainly deserves to stay on stage alongside some of Ackbourn’s better known comedies and I am glad that my wish to see it again has finally been granted.

The First 60 Years of the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Scarborough Art Gallery. 11-07-15

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The Stephen Joseph theatre is sixty years old this this year- two years older than I am- and for someone who has been seeing productions there for thirty years the celebratory exhibition at Scarborough art gallery is a fascinating walk back through time. Theatre is an impossible art form to recreate- you are either there to see it at a given moment or you are not- and that is what makes it so special to those who love it. When it is gone it is gone. What we are shown in the exhibition are ghosts. Posters, photographs, costumes, props, designs, fragments of something that once lived and breathed. These fragments help us connect with the past, whether it is thirty years ago or last October. Oh the memories………… hand painted publicity from the seventies, two of the original seats which came to Westwood after the Floral hall was demolished, (I might have sat in one of them in either venue!) the white fur coat with a magnificent train that Sarah Parks wore as Marlene Dietrich, relics from the lifetime of a theatre. Magic props. Memories of plays that I saw, plays that I missed, plays that went on to be performed all over the world after their birth on a tiny round stage.

Woman_in_mindIt says a lot about both my family and the town of Scarborough that it took me until 1985- well after I had become a theatre nut- to walk through the doors into the old Theatre in the Round at Westwood for the first time. Our family holidays were about seeing the big summer shows and that was what both they and the town valued most. I struck lucky. It was the original production of Woman in Mind, one of Alan Ayckbourn’s best plays. I was completely entranced by both the play and the space. At that point I had seen nothing like it before. Even my dad had to admit as we walked out that “if they put that on in a proper theatre that wouldn’t be a bad play”. I have been going back throughout the thirty years that have passed since. I have seen some of the best theatre there that you could ever wish for and a few real turkeys. No playwright and no theatre company gets it right every time over that kind of timescale and that’s fine- it’s what makes it so special when it works. The stakes are high and you sit there in hope.

I have even performed there myself, back in the Westwood days when there was a break in the professional season and amateur companies were allowed to mount productions. It’s a thrilling space to act in- a very exposed circular arena where there is no place to hide. It demands truth and complains loudly when it doesn’t get it. Seeing an actor like Michael Gambon or Judd Hirsch at full pitch in an intimate space like that is a wonderful privilege. You are just lucky to be there in one of the few available seats without having to pay through the nose for the chance. Even today you can get a midweek matinee ticket for ten pounds if you are quick off the mark. I mean…….. come on, why wouldn’t you? So many famous names have been on stage in Scarborough that it is easy to forget that you saw them there first, I was surprised to find out, for example, that I saw Martin Freeman in the revival of The Woman in White back in 1997 when I saw his face in the exhibition. In contrast I have a very clear memory of Tamsin Outhwaite. I had picked her out as a star before she even opened her mouth as I watched her on stage flicking sulkily through a magazine.

It was good to read so many supportive quotes for the theatre around the walls. Alan Ayckbourn’s gift to the town has not always had the appreciation from the town of Scarborough that it deserves. A town councillor once famously remarked that the small subsidy which the council used to give would be better spent on public toilets. Luckily Ayckbourn’s loyalty to both the town and his mentor Stephen Joseph’s vision of a very special way of making theatre ensured that the town got a theatre whether it wanted one or not. It has been a lifeline and a joy to me through most of my adult life, growing and flourishing against the odds and it is still there, a beacon of live performance at the top of Westborough. That is something to celebrate. Long may it continue.

Arrivals and Departures. Stephen Joseph Theatre. Scarborough. 12-09-13

Arrivals and departures

Elizabeth Boag as Ez and Kim Wall as Barry in Arrivals and Departures.
Production photograph by Tony Bartholemew.

Alan Ayckbourn’s latest play, Arrivals and Departures, is a very clever piece of writing. It is set on a London railway platform where the climax of a sting to capture a terrorist from an incoming train is about to take place. There are plenty of laughs from the ineptitude of the team and the exasperation of their leader but we are taken beyond that into poignant and heartfelt feelings as the play progresses. We are allowed into the memories of the two main characters, a cheery Yorkshire traffic warden called Barry who is there as an identifying witness and his minder Ez, a surly policewoman, as they wait for the sting to take place and while they remain strangers to each other their past is revealed to us in flashback. We see the same action on the station platform twice, interspersed with Ez’s story in the first half and then with Barry’s in the second. This is a risky thing to do to an audience and it takes every bit of Ayckbourn’s experience and skill as a dramatist to bring it off. I am not going to give away what happens, but as we hear the lines again (sometimes with subtle additions showing us a bit more) they gain resonance from the information about the characters that we are learning. We are shown the two characters reacting in the present and also shown why they are as they are through the flashbacks. It’s a sobering process which reminds us that people are never quite what they seem and the best lesson in how to structure a piece of writing for the theatre that you could ever wish for.

There is some broad comedy but it wasn’t that which held my attention so much as the truthfulness and poignancy of the two central performances. Elizabeth Boag is totally convincing as Ez, an unpleasant woman on the surface who is surly and gives little away. As you find out why she has ended up like this and how this inability to connect with others has destroyed her chance of happiness you learn not to judge. Kim Wall is delightful as Barry. He is loud, annoying, well meaning and the kind of bloke that you dread sitting opposite you on a train. Wall’s comic timing is great, there were moments when I was reminded of Eric Morecambe and you won’t get higher praise from me than that. He has the gift that is gold dust to a really good comedian, an ability to draw people in and an instant likeability. When this is turned to poignant effect, as it is in the second half, you have something quite special. It is this character and this performance which gave the play real meaning and heart for me. It was also perfectly backed up by a lovely performance, beautifully judged by James Powell, who was completely believable and also very touching as Barry’s younger self. Goodness is a very hard quality to sell to an audience on stage and both Kim Wall and James Powell did this perfectly- two sides of the same coin.

I enjoyed this very much, the master playwright is on top form.

Surprises. Stephen Joseph Theatre. Scarborough. 11-10-12

Production photo by Robert Day.

Alan Ayckbourn’s latest play, Surprises, which is just ending its run at the Stephen Joseph theatre in Scarborough is one of his periodic forays into the future, a future where time travel is possible for those who can afford it, you can go mountaineering on Mars if you are prepared to risk being travel sick for many months, and people are living long, long lives. It is this last change which forms the basis for some of the questions which the play asks. How long can we expect love to last? How long can life maintain its joy and freshness? They are interesting thoughts but I’m not sure whether this is a sharp enough play to tackle them. I am going to stick my neck out and say that Ayckbourn, a master of theatrical structure, has not quite managed to make the structure of this one work. It is a little disjointed. The first act is slow and at the end of it I even wondered whether the play was going to be a disappointment. It wasn’t, but the story which it sets up is never quite followed through clearly and while there are some interesting diversions, a clever visual phone which works beautifully, a truly delightful performance as an android from Richard Stacey, some truthful and graceful acting from Ayesha Antoine, and a gutsy performance from the inimitable Sarah Parks I was never quite engaged with the characters enough to properly care about them.

Richard Stacey as Jan. Production photograph by Robert Day.

So what did I want? The idea within the play which really fascinated me was a stunningly theatrical and delightfully visual virtual reality game where we were shown two characters in their offices playing and and at the same time watched their avatars picking each other up in a bar in cyberspace. There is a whole play there within that idea and I’d love to see it. Aside from that section of the play I never quite believed that we were actually in the future in the way that I did when I saw Henceforward, Ayckbourn’s much better and much more chilling play set in the near future from back in 1987. I’d like to see that one again.

Absurd Person Singular. Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough. 20-09-12

Ben Porter and Laura Doddington as Sidney and Jane Hopcroft.
Production photograph by Robert Day.

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.

Dear Uncle. Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. 29-09-11

Frances Grey as Helena and Matthew Cottle as Marcus. Production still by Tony Bartholemew.

Alan Ayckbourn’s new adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is beautifully done, allowing the original to speak clearly in a new setting like a newly restored old master. The transportation of the story to the Lake District in 1935 during the afforestation controversy works very well. Chekhov’s characters survive the journey and remain believable and truthful in their new setting thanks to the quality of Ayckbourn’s dialogue which serves the original well and never tries to be too innovative or self consciously clever. This is a nice tribute from a master playwright to his hero, a very different master playwright from a different age and it is a selfless task which has taken far more skill than the adaptor is ever allowed to show off.

This is a play full of melancholy and world-weariness. It faces up to the truth that life is bittersweet and things do not always work out well, the good guys do not always win. All that we have in the face of that reality is the ability of the human spirit to keep going in the face of setbacks and injustice and the belief of the young that somehow it will work out differently for them. That is Chekhov’s subject and it is as true now as it ever was.

Marcus has been managing the estate very capably for years on behalf of Sir Frederick Savage, who prefers to live elsewhere, remaining under appreciated and under resourced. The small household has lapsed into a deadening inertia which is only lightened by the optimism and good heart of  Sonya, Sir Frederick’s niece. This routine is disturbed by a visit from Sir Frederick and his beautiful, discontented young wife Helena, a visit which throws the settled routine of the estate into chaos when Sir Frederick announces his plan to sell up what is rightfully Sonya’s and disappear off with the profits without any indication that he has thought of the consequences to those who live there. This injustice pushes Marcus over the edge and all his righteous resentment, a resentment which has been building for a long time, finally explodes.

Frances Grey as Helena and Phil Cheadle as Dr Charles Ash. Production still by Tony Bartholemew.

Without exception the performances are all very fine. Matthew Cottle is terrific as Marcus. He clearly shows us the pain which he has carried for so long that he barely feels it any more and when he is eventually pushed too far by a final injustice which he cannot ignore his anger is both electric and heartbreaking. This is a man for whom nothing has gone right. His life of sacrifice and service to others has not brought happiness or success, he has been taken advantage of and it is painful to watch him fall apart. His only hope is Sonja. She is still young and able to believe in the future and she may help him find a way forward. Amy Loughton is also very fine as Sonja. She has the other most moving journey in the play as we watch her first disillusionment when her teenage love for Dr Ash is neither requited nor treated kindly. Very few first loves work out and it is easy to empathise with her and wish that she didn’t have to find out how cruel life can be. In the final moments of the play, when they find themselves facing more weary days with little to allow them to hope for the future, she encourages Marcus by saying “We shall rest”, and you can only hope that both of them will do just that and find the strength to try again.

The look of the production, which was designed by Jan Dee Brown, is perfect, muted and melancholy, and I enjoyed the choice of Love Is the Sweetest Thing as a kind of theme song. This is a story where nobody gets what they want. Nobody is allowed the uncomplicated happiness of the requited love which that song celebrates, making it’s beauty a bittersweet comment on the myth which many popular songs try to sell us.

Evidently this production was to have been given a West End opening with an all star cast but getting dates which the actors could all commit to proved difficult. This was London’s loss and Scarborough’s gain. I see no reason why they shouldn’t just move the current SJT cast down south to show them how it’s done. They more than deserve it, and so does Alan Ayckbourn’s adaptation.