SJT and Ayckbourn 2019

Another autumn, another programming of Ayckbourn plays at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Sticking with the long-standing pattern of the last decade, there were two Ayckbourn plays this year: a revival of a classic in the summer – another one from the height of his commercial success – and a new play in the autumn. But wait … I have a third Ayckbourn in the list, that’s officially not affiliated with the SJT, but in practice has a strong connection. But we’ll get to that in a moment. Let us begin with the two plays on at Scarborough.

Season’s Greetings

Astute though Alan Ayckbourn is with his observations of human character, there is one thought that frequently goes through my head when I see an unflattering character in one of his plays: “I pity the poor bastard who this was based on.” Off-hand, I can’t think of anyone this applies to more than poor old Bernard, artistic director of the worst puppet show in the world. Bernard thinks – or has at least deluded himself into believing – that his Christmas plays for the kids are a delightful annual family tradition. For everyone else, it’s notorious, with simple fairy tales padded out to snails pace; add in the numerous complex scene changes (sixteen in this year’s performance of The Three Little Pigs And Their Wives And Families) and the play turns into an endurance test. Who was this person? Who did these awful puppet plays in real life? The answer surprised me.

Alan Ayckbourn’s inspiration for this famous scene was none of than Alan Ayckourn himself. It was supposed to be a bit of fun with he two young sons to put something on from the grandparents, and whilst we can safely assume his writing was better than Bernard’s, he made the play so complicated and got so angry when things didn’t turn out right that it sucked out all of the joy. That, to some extent, is an over-arching theme of the play, with everyone taking their own obsessions a little to seriously that it takes away all the fun, from themselves, or others, or both. Uncle Harvey, for example, gorges himself on violent films over Christmas and tries to give the children weapons as presents, especially to annoy ultra-pacifist Bernard. The central character, however, is Belinda. She practically runs the operation single-handed, with husband Neville’s contributions limited to compulsively unscrewing and re-assembling slightly fault electrical items – or, if there is nothing to fix, creating new devices that nobody asked for or needed. When she meets and hits it off with recently-divorced Clive, currently in a going-nowhere relationship with her emotionally fuddled and frigid sister, we know where this is going.

Season’s Greeting is one of Ayckbourn’s plays from his peak commercial success, and is very much a play of that time. Some things are attached to the period of the play – the big one being, as was the case for most of the early plays, that none of the women appear to have any kind of jobs and everyone sees this as perfectly normal. But most of the play is universal: marriages drifting apart due to complacency, petty disputes escalating into long-standing feuds, and so many unspoken woes that could be solved if only people would stop evading issues and start talking. And, it seems, there’s no better times than to hide this away and put on a happy face than the festive season.

If there’s one shortcoming of Season’s Greetings, it’s that this struggles to stand out from all the other Ayckbourn plays written around this period. I can’t think of many things in this play that wasn’t done in another play around the time, and bearing in mind the play after this was Way Upstream – innovative for both the canal boat on stage and the power-struggle played out within the boat – there’s no contest. But, to be fair, that’s a very high bar to clear for obvious reasons. Season’s Greetings might not be the definitive milestone that so many other Ayckbourns from the last decade were, but it won’t disappoint you either.

Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present

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Ayckbourn’s new play two years ago, A Brief History of Women, had four scenes, each with twenty years between them. This play was billed as A Brief History in reverse, and that’s not a bad description. Again it’s got four scenes, each with many years between them, but this time we are going backward. We begin in the present and it’s Mickey’s 80th birthday. He is a proper no-nonsense Yorkshireman, and he and his wife Meg are having a quiet birthday party with their son Adrian. However, Mickey takes his no-nonsense Yorkshiremanness a bit too far sometimes, and one thing he’s got into his head is that is son is an insatiable casanova/sex-maniac. And now he’s brought this nice young Christian lady along, Grace, and it’s only fair she’s warned. We can already guess Mickey has got the wrong end of the stick, but before we go any further, we must see the aforementioned nice young Christian lady’s reaction to this revelation.

And then onwards. And backwards. Plays that run in reverse chronological order, I think, are one of the hardest things to do. Every time you go back in time, you have to start the exposition all over again, and the end of the scene has to fit in with the start of the previous one. But if you re-hash what’s already been talked about in the previous scene it becomes all predictable. This play works primarily by revealing backwards the origins of the legend that is Adrian’s bedrooms antics, through failed marriage, episode with call girl and conquest at his own sister’s eighteenth (spoiler: the truth is a lot less sensational than Mickey thinks it is). Two off-stage characters feature quite heavily too. Frequently-mentioned Uncle Hal is a fun-loving but pretty irresponsible uncle responsible for at least two family crises, but the big player is Sonia. Daughter to Mickey and Meg, she can’t make dad’s party because she’s too busy in Thailand, which on its own might seem like something unfortunate but can’t be helped. But when she uses this excuse for every major family birthday, or indeed any birthday at all, it says a lot about how important she sees herself.

However, I do think that the play lost something by focusing so heavily on Adrian’s story. Although it concludes his backstory nicely with the scandalous/disappointing truth of his teenage antics in the airing cupboard (via playing animal snap with a call girl sent by Uncle Hal), in the second half we never hear much about the backstories of his parents. And things were getting interesting between Mickey and Meg too, with a bust-up at Mickey’s 65th down to Uncle Hal’s hot foreign girlfriend flirting with her husband too much. What was that all about? Surely that didn’t come out the blue, surely there’s some history there? Sadly, we never find that out, and that to me felt like a missed opportunity.

That’s a thought to have long after the play finishes though. It’s a decent play, managed the complicated business of telling the story backwards well, and it doesn’t repeat the mistake of having a character doing something implausible for a laugh (something that was a let-down in the otherwise good Brief History of Women). A lot of praise was given to Naomi Petersen for playing Adrian’s four alleged conquests, but my favourite moment had to be the end of the first scene when Grace hears the shocking truth about her husband-to-be, which has to be one of the funniest moments I’ve on the stage this year. A pity for the missed opportunity over finding out more about Mickey and Meg, but another pleasing play from Alan Ayckbourn who shows no signs of stopping.

Ten Times Table

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I rarely bother with high-profile tours of classic Ayckbourn plays because they rarely sell on the merit of the play or the production. Instead, they are sold on the big names of the people acting in it, usually people known from TV. Too often, that is used as a substitute for actually doing a good production. Far too often, the director misses the point and tries to package it as a 1970s suburbia sitcom. Not this director though. Robin Herford was, for many years, Aybourn’s number two at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, and even stepped in as acting Artistic Director during Ayckbourn’s two-year sabbatical at the National Theatre – if anyone other than Ayckbourn can be trusted to get this right, it’s him. So I apologise to the cast, all of whom I’ve never heard of in spite of most of them being in TV shows watched by everybody except me, for being overshadowed, but the good news is that thanks to in you were all in an unexpected gem. This is more by accident than by design, but Ten Times Table is a perfect political satire in the age of Johnson and Corbyn. And a cautionary tale about fake news to boot.

What’s even more remarkable about this political satire is that Alan Ayckbourn famously hates politics (legend has it he only voted once, and that was for a friend standing as an independent in a council election). The original inspiration of this was the bureacracy of committee meetings, and that’s how this play begins. Set in a series of council subcommittee meetings chaired by Ray, a kind of forerunner to Ian Fletcher from Twenty Twelve, to organise a pageant in Ayckbourn’s favourite town Pendon. To begin with, it’s a checklist of the committee meetings from hell, with deaf minutes takers, the guy who nit-picks over the most trivial details, and the councilllor who promises all the support form the council and fails every time. Not to mention meetings in a ballroom in winter with perpetually broken heating so that everyone has to wear coats. But that’s only the start of the problems. The first mistake is to decide to de a re-enactment of a little-known historical event of the massacre of the Pendon Twelve. The second mistake is to delegate responsibilities for recruiting protestors and soldiers to two different team leaders: future Corbynite die-hard Eric who casts himself as ringleader John Cockle, and future Boris superfan Helen whose stance to law and order would make Priti Patel look like Mahatma Ghandi.

There’s an old saying that the lower the stakes are, the bitter the politics gets, and there can be fewer better examples than what’s to come. I did mention that this was just a re-enactment, didn’t I? That is swiftly forgotten by Eric and Helen alike. Eric practically think he’s a reincarnation of the great political martyr John Cockle. In reality, Eric is no socialist visionary – he is shallow, egotistical, and self-serving. Helen, on the other hand, is merely insane. With Eric ahead of the numbers game recruiting revolutionaries / sixth-form students, Helen enlists the help of the over-protective brother of one of the two women Eric has sharing him – and as an ex-army man, he knows exactly how to sort of this rabble, but don’t worry, guns are strictly a last resort. It probably won’t even be necessary to club them with the wooden guns they’ve got from the local amdram society. Er, did I mention this is just a re-enactment?

Of course, this is just the premise. As I always say about Ayckbourn plays, there are usually easy to do well, but even easier to do badly, especially if you plays it as a tick-the-boxes suburban farce. That is where Robin Herford comes in. He has the advantage of years of first-hand experience of how Ayckbourn intends is plays to be done – indeed, he was the the original production – and it shows here. One of the big challenges with staging Ten Times Table is that it was written for the round where you can easily have people sitting round a table – that is much harder to achieve on the end-stage, but Herford strikes just the right balance, with the occasional person sitting on the near-side of the table, but not too much to block the sightlines. More important is the characterisation. The biggest mistake you can make with any Ayckbourn is make all the characters mug it for laughs. When Helen has a little cry when her plans are falling apart, you feel for her in spite her nuttiness. Eric only really loses sympathy when you see how he treats his two women he has sharing him: one a long-time partner too timid to speak out over this arrangement, and another vulnerable enough to believe that this obvious bastard is different and it won’t be like all of the other obvious bastards. When that too falls apart, you feel for them.

The strangest thing is that I read the script years ago and thought “meh” at the time, as well as thinking it was a little far-fetched. But that was before Borismania and Corbynmania were things, and the ridiculously petty obsessions Eric and Helen have with their own pet tribalisms is way too familiar. There again, this was first performed in 1977 when Thatchermania and Scargillmania were things, so, yeah, that figures. The only shame is that after all of this, the audience size wasn’t great. I fear that the marketing did the play a disservice – not this particular play as such, but marketing of major Ayckbourn tours in general. Decades of marketing early Ayckbourn plays as gentle suburban farces makes it very difficult to them to appeal on every other level. I suspect there are a lot of people out there who overlooked this as something bland who would loved seeing the world’s bitterest and pettiest political spat had they known. This tour is running until March and the next north-east stop is York on the 10th-15th February. If you’re a Boris superfan or Corbyn superfan you will probably miss the point of the play, but everyone else, come along with your popcorn and watch the equivalent superfans from the 1970s battle it out.

Build a Rocket

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Last on this list isn’t an Ayckbourn, but instead a project of Ayckbourn’s sucessor’s successor as SJT Artistic Director. It was at the Edinburgh Fringe last year, and I saw it and reviewed it then. I don’t normally do fresh reviews when I see a play I liked a second time, but I do when there is something new to say. This is one of the occasions.

So, to recap, this is the story of Yasmine, who ends up pregnant at sixteen, and with no support from friends or family ought to be in the situation where she loses everything. But she struggles on in spite of all the obstacles in her way and ends up raising a child she’s proud of. This did well at the Edinburgh Fringe – and as we learned over the last couple of years, a respectable name behind a play is no guarantee of success – but there was a minority of reviews that criticised the play as “poverty porn”. That was quite unfair, in my opinion, as this completely missed the point of what Yasmine achieved in spite of being cast into this stereotype.

However, these criticisms did raise one valid point, which was that the second half of the play, from the birth of Jack to his A-level results, was squeezed into a tight 20-25 minutes at the end. Under those conditions, I can understand why some people mistook this for a bolt-on to the end of a teen pregnancy tale, rather than an integral part of tale of a nineteen-year epic. And the good news is that this touring version, free from the time constraints of the Edinburgh Fringe, really benefits from the extra fifteen minutes. Even if you enjoyed the play, the story from birth to eighteen felt a bit rushed, so the additional time makes it a lot easier to take this in.

Some themes that were zipped past in the original have more time to make an impact. I picked up that Jack’s father was pretty useless, but this goes into a more detailed depiction where he back way, then makes a effort to do the father than, but it’s never more than half-hearted. More of the unfairness and vulnerability comes through. Unfair that opportunities are denied to Yasmine’s kid because she has to pay money that’s peanuts to other parents but a fortune to her; vulnerable because she’s always behind on rent to a landlord who’s got the hots for her – who’d never try anything like that, but it’s scary how easily he could if he wanted to. But the newest thing that comes through is Yasmine’s battle with her own self-esteem. When Yasmine succeeds in convincing the social workers they don’t need to check up on her any more, that’s when the crippling doubts come in: “take him away, I’ll ruin him”. And an early discussion with a social worker who believed in her proves pivotal to her carry on and succeeding.

Build a Rocket might have started off as a side project for Paul Robinson to complement the shows he and Ayckbourn were doing on the main stages, but this has swiftly grown to arguably be his greatest success since taking over in 2017. Paul Robinson and the Stephen Joseph Theatre have more challenges ahead of them, and one day I may give my thoughts on that, but this is the most promising sign so far. It’s long since been a goal of everyone at the SJT, Ayckbourn included, to be known for more than the Ayckbourn theatre. This play is the best indication yet of what the future might be.

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