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.

Marlene. Stephen Joseph Theatre. 02-06-11

Marlene Dietrich’s image as a screen icon was carefully constructed and maintained, not by an entourage of minders and publicists (they came second) but by herself. She was a powerful woman who knew exactly how to get the effects that she wanted and maintain a screen and stage persona that made her one of the highest paid stars of the early days of Hollywood. She worked long and hard, taking on the Hollywood patriarchy, while having no illusions about the quality of her looks or her talent ( “Darling the legs aren’t so beautiful, I just know what to do with them.”) and she continued to support herself when her screen career slowed down by a tough schedule of wildly successful live concerts. It was a career that lasted over half a century, in some ways her whole life was a performance which only stopped when the hotel room door shut behind her. She gave enormous support to the second world war effort while never letting her hatred of what the Nazis were doing be confused with her love of her native Germany. All in all she was a woman to admire in many ways, a fine role model, and women of today owe a lot to her groundbreaking spirit of independence and strength of character. It’s very obvious that this is a great subject for a play and a gift of a lead role. Pam Gem’s play Marlene gives us Marlene in all her aspects, imperious, cruel, mercurial, strong, vulnerable, lonely, kind, all laced with a sardonic humour that takes no prisoners- least of all herself. It isn’t a one woman play, there are two members of her entourage who are there to look after her needs, but we learn little about them and it might as well be. From the moment she comes down the stairs of one of the audience entrances Marlene’s rapport with the audience is established and the focus of the play never leaves her. She often talks directly to us, sharing her memories as she prepares to perform and sings the songs evoked by them. It is spellbinding stuff. The play ends by allowing us to see Marlene on stage in concert and this is a perfect way to contrast and crown what we have already seen. The pleasure of finally seeing her doing what she does best is shot through with poignancy given what we have learned during the time that we have shared with her.

You don’t have a production without a terrific actress as Marlene, and Sarah Parks is great in the role. She has style, humour and great comic timing and her voice is perfect for Marlene’s repertoire. The play stands on her performance alone, nothing else matters, and she is a delight to watch. I liked her very much in Hull Truck’s Men of the world and it was good to see her have the chance to spread her wings and tackle a major part. The other two roles are rather overplayed for my taste and I’d like to have seen them played in a low key, less theatrical way. They are there as foils for Marlene and need to remain that way. The production really doesn’t manage to make the tiny scene where Marlene instructs a group of usherettes ready for her curtain call work. It is the same curtain call which we see at the end, and our knowledge of the artifice behind Marlene’s performance ought to add an extra frisson, but it just doesn’t ring true. Having said that, these reservations are small ones when set against the quality of the central performance, which is pitch perfect. The set is great, stylish dressing room furniture including a white dressing table with a clear glass top instead of a mirror, a white baby grand piano and a shiny black reflective floor which works beautifully for the concert ending.

Go and see this production if you can. It is both moving and entertaining and there is a wonderful selection of Marlene’s most famous songs to enjoy. It is a fitting tribute to Pam Gems who sadly died in May this year.

Men of the world. Hull Truck at the Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough. 08-04-10

hullThere is a lot to admire about what John Godber has built up at Hull Truck. He has developed a distinctive, thriving local theatre in Hull since he became artistic director in 1984 by the force of his prolific talent as a writer and director and developed a keen eye for what the Hull audience will enjoy and respond to. Now, over twenty five years later, Hull Truck is thriving in a new building and the loyalty which he has given to Hull has been returned in full by the enthusiastic local audiences. There may not be many surprises in a typical Hull Truck production of a John Godber play but there will be honest storytelling about working people delivered in a cleverly theatrical, entertaining and sometimes moving context. He is a confident playwright and director and you can rely on him, and his casts to deliver.

Men of the World is a vintage example of what they do best. Three coach drivers are setting out with three coach loads of passengers to visit the Rhine Valley and we see the progress of their journey with its heartaches, frustrations and laughter. Their passengers are mostly OAP’s and as they muse on life, the universe, aching legs and cheese sandwiches we come to admire their unstoppable spirit at the same time as we laugh with recognition at their foibles. We have all known people on that coach, those of us who haven’t got there yet may be them one day, and we laugh with them ( but never at them) as they treat us to their gems of mature wisdom. Regretting the fact that young people seem to have relationships which are ever more impermanent one of them says sadly, “They should make them stick together- see how they like it.” Over and over again the audience laughed, delighted to recognise people on stage who they felt that they knew, carried along by the truth of character comedy which never strayed into farce and sometimes caught by surprise and silenced by moments of poignancy. The three bus drivers were nicely contrasted and characterised. Frank, a good hearted woman who had learned how to be one of the lads, Stick, youngish, cynical and hankering to be moved onto the Spanish run and try his luck with the younger women to be found there, and Happy Larry, who is lonely and wondering if his luck has run out and he should make this his last run. Sarah Parks, Robert Angell and Dicken Ashworth also played the full range of passengers on the coaches, helped by a few scarves, flat caps, baseball caps, pipes and head-scarves. The three of them worked very well together, accurate and responsive to each other and they often drew a round of applause simply for their cleverness. I particularly liked Sarah Parks as Frank. She has terrific vocal flexibility and a killer instinct for the body language of elderly men. She also did a very sharp turn as a dreadful club comic and singer who entertained the passengers on one of the stops. It was very important that the elderly and the unsophisticated were not patronised or lampooned and they never were. Nor were they sentimentalised. The play was a celebration of the fact that they were still getting out there and grabbing the few opportunities that life had left for them. None of them had any illusions about their circumstances. They hadn’t spent their youth dreaming of going on coach tours, any more than young people do now, but if a coach tour down the Rhine was the best thing on offer to them at this late stage they were going to grab it with both hands. After all, it beat staying at home, didn’t it?

The direction, by Godber himself was sure footed and thoughtful, respectful of his characters and drawing as many visual possibilities as possible from three actors and a pile of suitcases. He understands his talent and what he can do with it after so many years experience and it shows. No surprises then, and no moments of out and out brilliance, but sometimes the fact that a piece of theatre does exactly what you expect it to can be a great strength. After all, when you open a can of beans you don’t want rice pudding do you?