theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
Absurd Person Singular by Alan Ayckbourn
It is 35 years since this play was originally presented and, like many of Ayckbourn’s successful plays, has had numerous productions. In all that time, however, I have never seen it in the theatre.
Does it work? I’m not sure, is my answer, but certainly not in this production. Has it dated? Probably, but only in that it is free of any contemporary references and the sets do not suggest the kitchens that today’s upwardly mobile middle classes aspire to. The characters are certainly recognisable types, as they must have been more than three decades ago. Ayckbourn is pointing his finger at our blinkered self-centredness and inability to see the world outside. Of course, most of his middle-class theatregoers won’t recognise themselves, though they will claim to recognise the weaknesses and foibles of his characters as just like those of their friends and acquaintances.
The play, like some of his others, does not fit easily into a clear genre. It moves from comedy to farce to social satire and it is not easy to find a way of making them all fit together. The commercial success of his comedies has made people believe they are foolproof, but this is not the only production to have shown that to be fallacious. His script actually tells us very little about the individual characters. He leaves a lot for the actor to fill in, and that input from the performers is missing here.
The play opens with an unsophisticated couple about to entertain their bank manager and his wife, hoping to ensure they get a loan for their business. The husband is frantically anxious and the wife a house-proud cleaning freak, but David Bamber and Jane Horrocks play them in such an exaggerated fashion that you can’t believe in them except as caricatures. It is an escalating series of maladroit mishaps – but to make farce work you need first to establish a believable normality. Only then can you throw in an unlikely coincidence or situation. In this production the director pitches us straight into cartoon characterisation. There is nowhere for these performances to go in responding to more manic situations. Fortunately, Jenny Seagrove’s rather grander lady arriving with her bank manager husband is all pretence as a character, which enables her to up the style a notch in the playing.
The second act, in the kitchen of a wife constantly interrupted (and ignored) in her attempts to kill herself, is almost pure farce, but instead of the characters being taken by surprise by the escalation of events, it feels as though they are conniving in contriving them.
The third act, in the bank manager’s kitchen, is more sombre. There has been a downturn in his life and that of the couple closest to them as friends. The more common pair, on the other hand, have had good fortune. Now it is they who are brimming with confidence and in control. Horrocks reflects this in her performance. Bamber is even more frantic. Don’t get me wrong. Much of this is still funny. I laughed a few times and many in the audience were clearly very amused. But surely there is more to it than this.
In a long speech about his marriages David Horovitch as the bank manager tops a performance that is more consistently believable than his fellows: a beautifully handled scene. He makes me think of Ralph Richardson with the same suggestion of another world around him. He suggests a deeper subtext which needs bringing out elsewhere. Maybe, taken more seriously – deadly seriously – this play could be a rather disturbing hoot. As it is, I wondered why they had bothered to revive it. The paying public may not have my reservations and prove me very wrong.
Howard Loxton © 2007
Originally published on R&V 13-12-07
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