Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Absurd Person Singular

Alan Ayckbourn
New Victoria Theatre, Woking, and touring
(2009)

Production photo

Ayckbourn is a careful observer of human nature and its little foibles, so much so that the characters he invents, however bizarre their antics, are completely believable. I even found myself wondering about the life of each couple over the years between acts which changed their lives so completely, although the signs of change were there from the start.

Divided into three acts, in three contrasting kitchens on three consecutive Christmas Eves - past, present and future - three very contrasting couples each host a drinks party. The first is at the home of social climber Sidney (Matthew Cottle) and his wife Jane (Lisa Kay). So anxious is he to make an impression on his important guests who might be able to help him in his business that he insists on everything being perfect, making his wife a nervous wreck as she tries to please him. Luckily she seems to enjoy cleaning, polishing everything in sight - including her husband. As with the best parties, the guests wander into the kitchen, where plummy-voiced Marion (Deborah Grant), gin in hand, over-enthuses hypocritically about everything and we only hear the party from the buzz of talk and laughter in the living room each time the door is opened. That’s all Jane hears too as she spends the entire evening outside in the rain. Marion’s husband Ronald (Robert Duncan) absent-mindedly reads the cooker instructions, taking little notice of his wife, a clue to how things might develop.

Party number two takes place in the home of handsome womaniser Geoffrey (Stephen Beckett) where his pill-popping wife Eva (Elizabeth Carling) is sitting glumly penning suicide notes. This, perhaps surprisingly, turns out to be the funniest scene of all, with the guests blissfully unaware of her intentions but assuming that they are helping. Even her head in the gas oven is assumed by Jane to be an attempt to clean it, and she enthusiastically takes over the job.

So expert are the cast and director (Alan Strachan) in this scene that even the farcical exploits become credible. Duncan is especially impressive with his simulation of electrocution, and what better method of helping him over the shock than to wrap him up in the conveniently handy contents of the laundry basket, something which had the audience in fits of laughter. Marion wanders in looking for gin, Sidney (being his obnoxious know-it-all self) is unblocking the sink, Geoffrey, the only one aware of his wife’s intentions is hiding the knives, and Eva is slowly sinking into oblivion under the influence of drugs and gin. The close of act two is still making me laugh as, all collapsed on the table, they slowly join in with Eva’s “Twelve Days of Christmas” and their various expressions tell all.

Set in the seventies, Michael Pavelka’s kitchen designs reflect the styles of each couple. Utilitarian and spotless for Jane, casual and trendy for Eva and a chilly (literally) traditional oak for Marion. Although everything takes place in the kitchen there would appear to be even more off-stage action - both described and heard, increasing the illusion of reality.

The last scene in the most comical and yet the saddest as, with fortunes reversed the despised Jane and Sidney are now well in the ascendant and even more unbearable as they exhort the other couples to join in the ‘fun’ - and now I am wondering what will happen to them all next Christmas and could Ayckbourn please write the sequel! Undemanding enjoyable comedy on the surface - but with a dark undertones.

Touring to Cardiff, Blackpool, Shrewsbury, Bromley and Bath

Reviewer: Sheila Connor