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.

My Wonderful Day. Stephen Joseph Theatre. 29-10-09

Ayesha Antoine as Winnie. Production photograph by Robert Day.

This is Alan Ayckbourn’s seventy third play. Think about that for a minute. He has written seventy three plays. I have seen a lot of them and it has to be said that not all of them are great, in fact some of them are duds, but if you have written that many plays then this fact isn’t even a criticism- more like an inevitability. The best of them are some of the most clever, hard edged and technically accomplished comedies that you could hope to see. He has made a huge contribution both to British theatre and the town of Scarborough which he adopted many years ago as his home. They haven’t always appreciated him there but their indifference has given a quiet self effacing man the chance to work on his craft without being bothered too much and build relationships with other creative people over the years in a familiar comfortable environment. It has suited him. It has suited me too, as where else would you always be sure of getting a seat for the world premieres of Britain’s most popular playwright? My Wonderful Day is going straight off to New York to open off Broadway, and The Norman Conquests won seven Tony awards last year but Scarborough can’t even be bothered to sell out a 404 seat capacity house for a month to see it. A local councillor once gave his opinion that the money (little enough) given to the SJT would be better spent on public toilets. Do I sound angry? Well I am a bit.

So, what about My Wonderful Day? It is the story of a day in the life of a nine year old girl whose heavily pregnant mother brings her along to her cleaning job when she claims to be too ill to go to school and it’s a small gem. While Winnie sits around writing her essay assignment ( My Wonderful Day) about what is going on around her we see the heartaches, foibles and stupidities of the people around her through her eyes as she observes them and writes about them. Much of the high drama happens off stage and we observe it through her reactions. There are plenty of beautiful gentle little jokes and it takes the confidence and technical skill of a man who has spent his life writing and directing theatre to have the confidence to bring them off. It also demands a star performance from the actress playing Winnie, the nine year old observer, or it will never work, and thankfully it gets one in spades from Ayesha Antoine. She is an experienced 28 year old actress but her skill, and her interest in child psychology, has produced a performance which is a funny, truthful and utterly convincing portrait of a nine year old girl. And I should know, I taught enough of them over the years. You could see the wheels going round in her brain and know what she was thinking thanks to the way that every moment of the performance had been carefully thought out and followed through. It was utterly charming.

This is a quiet thoughtful play from a man who is looking back at his own childhood and using a lifetimes experience in theatre to make his points, relying on character and small beautifully played moments to do the work, there are no showy fireworks, and no overt technical cleverness. There is a sequence where Winnie is reading aloud from The Secret Garden to one of the characters, a lonely part time dad whose marriage has broken up, which is a complete joy without anything much actually needing to happen, simply because what we do see is totally honest and psychologically believable. The staging is clever, with three rooms being represented by a minimum of furniture and lighting and delineated by accurate movement from the characters. The other performances are funny and mostly not overplayed for laughs and two hours of action and reaction, played without an interval, flies by.