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Henceforward...

Alan Ayckbourn
Stephen Joseph Theatre Company
Stephen Joseph Theatre

Laura Matthews, Bill Champion, Jacqueline King Credit: Tony Bartholomew/Turnstone Media
Laura Matthews, Bill Champion Credit: Tony Bartholomew/Turnstone Media
Jacqueline King, Bill Champion, Laura Matthews, Russell Dixon Credit: Tony Bartholomew/Turnstone Media

Despite being a critical and commercial success when it was first produced in 1987, Alan Ayckbourn’s Henceforward… has not been revived often over the last thirty years. Given the extraordinary popularity of his prodigious oeuvre (eighty plays and counting), this might seem surprising, but Ayckbourn’s thirty-fourth play is markedly different from his earlier comedies in one crucial respect: it is a work of science fiction.

Set in a near dystopian future, Jerome (Bill Champion) is an isolated composer living in a metal-shuttered London flat that resembles a cross between a recording studio, a bachelor pad and a spaceship. Outside, a band of marauding feminist vigilantes—known as the "Daughters of Darkness"—patrol the streets, causing mayhem and terrorising passers-by. Since the departure of his wife and nine-year-old daughter Geain (pronounced "Jane") four years earlier, Jerome’s only companion is a malfunctioning female android called NAN 300F who limps around the flat bumping into furniture and botching simple domestic chores.

In order to gain access to his daughter, Jerome must impress his embittered ex-wife Corinna (Jacqueline King) and Mr Bickerdyke (Russell Dixon), a representative from the Department of Child Wellbeing. To do this, Jerome decides to hire Zoë (Laura Matthews), a scatter-brained actress-cum-escort, to pose as his fiancée. After the unfeeling Jerome records their lovemaking and incorporates her moans into one of his avant-garde compositions, Zoë is understandably horrified and storms out of the flat for good.

In sheer desperation, Jerome decides to pass off NAN 300F as his fiancée by reprograming her and changing her appearance so that she looks and sounds exactly like Zoë; we subsequently discover that the earlier version of the android had been made to look like Jerome’s ex-wife. However, the malfunctioning robot’s behaviour is difficult to predict, resulting in a lengthy comic sequence in which Jerome attempts to convince his guests that his robot companion is not only human but also the ideal wife and mother.

In Henceforward…, Ayckbourn offers an unsettling and thought-provoking take on the Pygmalion myth. Through Jerome’s attempts to create the "perfect woman"—first with a real human being and then with a robot—Ayckbourn explores the ways in which men use and exploit women. He also probes the dehumanising effects of technology through Jerome’s obsessive recording of all the rooms in his flat and his willingness to sample his loved ones in his music: he is, to quote Zoë, a "Listening Tom".

Henceforward… is striking for having such an unlikeable protagonist at its centre. Indeed, Jerome is so egotistical and self-obsessed, it is not hard to understand why Corinna left him in the first place. Bill Champion has his work cut out for him in this difficult role, which doesn’t allow him much opportunity to display his comic flair. That said, he does a fine job of conveying the character’s self-absorption and deep commitment to his music.

Fortunately, the rest of the cast are given plenty of great comic material to work with. Laura Matthews is excellent in her dual roles, imbuing Zoë with great warmth and charm in the first act and creating a convincingly robotic Stepford Wife in the second. Jacqueline King also impresses in her dual roles, particularly as Jerome’s acerbic ex-wife who takes him to task for his appalling behaviour. As Mr Bickerdyke, the officious jobsworth, Russell Dixon is suitably blustering and buffoonish. Jessie Hart makes a short but memorable appearance as the now teenage Geain who no longer resembles the daughter Jerome once knew and loved.

One of the inherent problems with the science fiction genre is that the technology it creates can soon seem outmoded. However, this is not too much of a problem for Henceforward…, where the malfunctioning machinery reminded me of other retro visions of the future such as Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece Brazil (1985). The video messages, designed by Paul Stear and played on screens above the set, are particularly effective in providing a sense of the chaotic world outside Jerome’s flat.

Overall, this revival offers an enjoyable evening at the theatre, combining moments of high comedy with sci-fi flourishes and knotty moral issues.

Reviewer: James Ballands