Alan Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular spans Christmas Eve on three successive years in 1970s England. The play opens in the kitchen of Sidney (Michael Byrnes) and Jane Hopcroft (Wendy Kemp), where we quickly learn that things are not all mistletoe and egg nog. Harried and hopelessly disorganised, Sidney and Jane are desperate to impress their guests: the Hobcrofts are battling store owners and Sidney is eager to expand the business.
Enter the ebullient Marion Brewster-Wright (Pauline Davies) and her bank manager spouse Ronald (Gary Somerville) whom Sidney hopes just might be able to give him a break. Joining in the festivities are the deadpan Eva Jackson (Kimberley Platt) and her cad of a husband Geoffrey (Mark Edwards).
The simmering class conflict between the working class Hobcrofts, the middle-class Jacksons (Geoffrey is an architect) and the snobbish Brewster-Wrights opens the first act and pervades the play. Davies captures the contemptuous, vivacious Marion superbly and Platt and Edwards make a believable dysfunctional couple.
The following Christmas Eve it is the turn of the Jacksons to play host. Their house in a mess; their marriage in a shambles and one of Geoffrey’s buildings having collapsed, Christmas cheer is far from their minds. Driven by her husband’s adultery into a deep depression, Eva becomes suicidal. Before she can do a Sylvia Plath (with the assistance of her gas oven), in bustles Jane and Sidney, who oblivious to the situation kind-heartedly set out to clean up the house and welcome the other guests.
Platt comes very close to capturing the chill, suicidal Eva, and it is this part of the play which demands most from the cast: Ayckbourn asks the audience to sympathise with the position of the moribund Eva while appreciating the (often hilarious) physical theatre which surrounds her.
By the time Christmas Eve is being toasted at the Brewster-Wright manor the next year, things have gone awry: Marion isn’t what she appeared to be, Geoffrey’s reputation is shot and the Hobcrofts are now enviably successful. This could very well be a much darker, brooding (and indeed more absurdist) play, but director Bill Young’s light and accessible interpretation is successful without being simplistic: Ayckbourn’s parody of the keeping-up-appearances act many of us play and the importance placed on wealth and success to judge a person anchors the play.
Young lets the cast find their characters progressively. The audience isn’t bludgeoned by cheap laughs or stock characterisation. The humour, like Ayckbourn’s message, is often subversive, appearing unexpectedly and with great force. Kemp grows steadily throughout as Jane, and her vacuous, heart-of-gold characterisation, particularly in the final act, is a treat.
English accents from all cast members are varied, polished and impressively sustained. Every centimetre of the small stage is utilised in the two-hour romp and not one actor lags from their characterisation at any point. Special mention must go to Davies, whose comic timing is exquisite.
Act 1 Theatre is an exceedingly modest company but their production of Absurd Person Singular radiates the confidence and skill one would expect from a larger, more established theatre group rather than at Strathpine to the far north of Brisbane. Sets are impressively designed and cleverly manoeuvred throughout the three-act-play, and the dynamism of the cast is sustained effortlessly. Only an absurd person would fail to enjoy this singular production.