Absurd Person Singular: The most misunderstood Ayckbourn play?

Absurd Person Singular is an Ayckbourn classic, but not the middle-class farce most people take it for.

Still from the play

One of Alan Ayckbourn’s anecdotes is of a time he was sitting in a theatre watching someone else’s production of Absurd Person Singular. He found it so dreadful, he left halfway through. As he left, another man whispered “I don’t blame you mate, this is awful”. Ayckbourn decided this wasn’t the best time to say he was the writer. He didn’t say who the offending theatre company were, but I can guess what they were doing wrong.

Alan Ayckbourn’s plays are often dismissed as light comedies with no depth. Previously, I’d suspected that the people whose expectations of Ayckbourn were set in stone by his comedies of the 1970s were people who haven’t bothered looking at his last three decades of work – but now I’m not even sure that explains it. Because he was already writing bleak plays back then including: Absent Friends (1974) centred on a man endlessly dwelling on his dead fiancée; Just Between Ourselves (1976) centred on a woman made permanently miserable by her domineering husband and family; and even as early as 1972, Absurd Person Singular is just as dark. And yet it still seems expected that you play it for laughs, laughs, belly-laughs, laughs and more laughs.

Fortunately, at the Stephen Joseph Theatre we have Alan Ayckbourn himself to show how it’s supposed to be done. This revival, on the play’s 40th anniversary, has a cast of six: five veterans of Ayckbourn/SJT productions and a sixth who was in last year’s plays from Artistic Director Chris Monks. In the play, they are three middle-class couples in strict pecking order: bank manager Ronald Brewster-Wright and his alcoholic wife Marion, architect Geoffrey Jackson and his emotionally-scarred wife Eve, and finally tradesman Sidney Hopcroft and his housework-obsessed wife Jane. Being the seventies, it goes without saying that none of the wives have jobs. All three husbands treat their wives badly: Sydney a control-freak, Geoffrey an unashamed adulterer, and Ronald, worst of all, just doesn’t get it. It’s a world of deference and social climbing where the politics of even a Christmas Eve party goes into overdrive. It’s very much an ensemble piece without a weak link, but if there’s one individual I’d pick out it’s Laura Doddington as Jane, who effortlessly flits between housework automaton, the downtrodden wife suffering in silence, and party master who is simultaneously warm and hospitable whilst also tactless and quite annoying.

The three-act play takes place over last Christmas, this Christmas, and next Christmas. One observation I had is that this play doesn’t really have a clear beginning, middle and end. You could just have easily started in Act 3 and carried on the story from there. Or started from a much earlier point and finished with Act 1. But I don’t think this matters. Real life rarely ties up all the loose ends in time for the finale, and I look on this as a passage of what is surely a much longer saga. That’s not to say that things don’t change in the three years: Eve’s journey from depression to suicide attempts to taking over her fallen husband’s life; Marion’s descent from snobbish superiority to alcoholic helplessness, and the Hopcrofts’ rise in the social stakes and the re-arrangement of the pecking order. Like many of Ayckbourn’s early plays, what began as a commercial smash hit, where middle-class theatregoing audiences could go to see themselves on stage, has found a second life as a snapshot of the attitudes and values of the time.

A special mention should go to the stage hands here. The play has two intervals with complete changes of set between three kitchens. I’m not sure a full set change is necessary – I could see this working just as well with a single set and superficial changes to indicate a different kitchen – but it was still impressive to watch the crew change everything: cookers, kitchen units, tables, chairs, lights and even the floor. I estimate half the audience stayed to watch the set changes, and the crew were even applauded for their work.

But the most important ingredient in the production is clearly the director. Ayckbourn isn’t the only person who can direct Ayckbourn well – the occasional SJT Ayckbourn production gets directed by someone else nowadays and I can’t tell the difference – but the absence of Ayckbourn certainly opens the door to doing it badly. This play would have been ruined if treated as a gag-fest – Eve is truly hell-bent on suicide in the second act, and the ending, although funny on the surface, thinly conceals the reality that no-one has a very bright future ahead. And yet half the theatre world still wants Ayckbourn plays on the same list as Good Gosh, Doctor!, and Lady Felicity’s Bloomers. Even in the original run Ayckbourn was under pressure to up the laughs, even to the point of someone totting how many laughs each act had. Most high-profile Ayckbourn revivals are more interested in which celebrities are in it than how it’s presented. It’s really no surprise that someone would get the play so wrong that the writer couldn’t bear to watch it.

In summary, if you’re after an enjoyable relaxing middle-class farce, this is not the play for you. If, however, your after a play that shows what went on beneath the happy exteriors of the 70s middle-class, where the laugh are merely a tool for the story, you’ve got until September.

Jan the robot bears a gift of flowersAlso running at the Stephen Joseph Theatre is Alan Ayckbourn’s new play, Surprises. The fact that Alan Ayckbourn is still writing 40 years after the height of his commercial success is an achievement – I can’t think of any other playwright who has done this on such a scale. And it’s not tired old rehashes either; in the last ten years we’ve had overwhelming critical acclaim for Private Fears in Public Places (2004) and My Wonderful Day (2009), whist Snake in the Grass (2002) and Improbable Fiction (2005) have been hugely popular with amateur dramatics societies. It’s fair to say a lot of his newer plays are different permutations of old themes, but the track record speaks for itself.

Surprises is a science fiction play. This genre isn’t traditionally associated with Ayckbourn, but a fair number of his plays are science fiction, with two (Henceforward … in 1987 and Communicating Doors in 1994) being particularly successful. However, it is arguably his most hit-and-miss area, with one play (Virtual Reality, 2000), having the dubious honour of being the most recent play to be withdrawn – an unavoidable risk of stepping out of your comfort zone.

The play uses the same cast as Absurd Person Singular, this time playing 13 characters between them, and also has three acts and two intervals. This time, Act 3 is 50 years ahead of Act 2, because in this vision of the future, it’s the norm, not the exception, to live a long way past 100. Unfortunately, this also pushes marriages to new limits. A happy 50 years used to mean a happy lifetime together – not any more. As a result, pre-nuptial contracts is now big business in the law profession. Meanwhile, robots are starting to look, behave, and now feel, more human. Robots becoming human has been done many times before, including several Ayckbourn plays, but there was nonetheless some lovely moments from Richard Stacey as Jan, who mixes the pedantic accuracy of a computer-driven mind with flashes of emotion or revenge, especially his put-down his human beloved’s loverat husband.

But there was one other thing in common with Absurd Person Singular – this, too, didn’t have a clear beginning, middle and end. This is fine when the story follows the same six people over two years, but when the play spans 50 years and Act III centres on different characters to Act I, I felt there was a lack of focus in this play. I’m not sure what if anything I’d have changed – maybe make Acts I and III more like the largely self-contained story of Act II, or perhaps the sprightly 16-year-old who opened the play needed a bigger role closing the play as a sprightly 66-year-old. I can’t put on my finger what it was, but something seemed missing.

Don’t get me wrong, it is a very enjoyable play; the only reason for nit-picking is the massively high standards that Alan Ayckbourn has built for himself. I’d quite gladly recommend making a day of your trip to Scarborough or Chichester to squeeze in both. But if you only have time for one: make it Absurd Person Singular.

Absurd Person Singular and Surprises run until Saturday 28 July at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, transfer to Chichester Festival Theatre (Minerva Theatre) on 8 August to 8 September, then return to Scarborough for 11 September to 13 October.