By Alan Ayckbourn
And you thought you had the Christmas from hell! Welcome to successive Christmas Eves at the Hopcrofts’, the Jacksons’ and the Brewster-Wrights’, where you will look back on last December and thank whatever gods there be that this wasn’t your experience, and that there are worse things than a minor tantrum about who got the best presents. < BR>
Absurd Person Singular is set in the early 1970s, and those of us who lived through that period can’t bear even to think about the back-combing, the bouffant (read angry beehive) hair, the cans of lacquer and the cards of bobby pins. How could we have done that to ourselves? And that’s just the hair. Let’s not even mention the unflattering mini-skirts, the ghastly paint-box colours, the face-flattening make-up, and the clumpy shoes. Forget nostalgia stylistically this was the worst of all possible worlds.
So just by living in this era, the Hopcrofts, the Jacksons and the B-Ws are at a great disadvantage. Add to that the social distinctions, for it’s set in the UK after all, and the tensions of inviting the bank manager for Christmas drinks to meet people equally awful, and you have a recipe for disaster which is, of course, what we get, this being an Alan Ayckbourn play. Over three consecutive Christmas Eves everything that can possibly go wrong does, and although the results are hilarious, our laughter is the classic reaction of the survivor, the thank-goodness-that-never-happened-to-me syndrome, the banana skin gag, which is one of the classic bases of comedy.
While we laugh, we cringe, because the pink laminex with matching cupboards and curtains was really happened, along with the relentless invocation of the spray-on furniture polish (“Oh Mr Sheen, oh Mr Sheen!”) and the importance of having exactly the right mixer for the gin.
We begin at the Hopcrofts, where houseproud Jane (played to almost irritating perfection by the wonderful Helen Cassidy), the stay-at-home neurotic perfectionist, is revealed to be completely insecure and under the thumb of her upwardly-mobile small-time developer husband Sidney, a role that Mark Conaghan develops with such subtle truth that he almost transforms the caricature that director Michael Gow has decided should be the style of the production.
This first act is by far the funniest, with sight gags about running out of bitter lemon, being shut out of your own house in the pouring rain, absorption in the wonders of the new washing machine and all the horrors of this kind of drinks party, which ends up in the kitchen, of course.
Among the invitees are Eva and Geoffrey Jackson. She is a potential alcoholic and an actual undermining bitch-wife Helen Howard in the first act gives us just enough of a hint as to what’s going to happen to her later in the play, while Peter Marshall as her easy-going sloppy architect-husband also offers surprises in the second act, surprises that we recognise in retrospect, but not at the time, as being inevitable.
Last but not least (the clichés keep springing inevitably to mind to match the seemingly clichéd people in the play) are the Brewster-Wrights, the guests you wish you didn’t have to invite. Robert Coleby is the bank manager Ronald, his pinstripe suit concealing the latent weakness of character that his ever-so-slightly too long haircut hints at; and Andrea Moore is his booming artificial wife, Marion, the kind of woman you should never, ever, choose as a friend.
So that’s the cast, a perfect sextet who work off each other’s weaknesses and foibles until the whole thing ends in tears, as it is bound to. For this is not one of Ayckbourn’s more predictable farces where, in spite of misunderstandings and people going through the wrong doors at the wrong time, all’s for the best in this best of all possible worlds. Here, what is potentially funny teeters on the edge of tragedy, which makes us care too much about the fates of these characters who are all, no matter how awful, doomed to misery of one kind or another. In Absurd Person Singular Ayckbourn scratches uncomfortably deep beneath the veneer of comedy and reveals awful truths that we prefer not to think about.
And that, I think, is the strength of this production, that it deliberately operates on two levels at once. Those Women’s Weekly kitchens, moving from Think Pink to Olive Drab to Grey Classic, may be caricatures of ’70s design, but their colours mirror the personalities of their owners as well as the mood of the play in each of the three acts. Designer Greg Clarke’s cunning sets are comic strip and deep social comment at the same time, as is Michael Gow’s vision for the production, that underneath the superficial blandness lie dreadful truths.
Technically it’s flawless, and all six actors (with the voices of Barbara Lowing and Nick Backstrom providing the background hum in the unseen drawing rooms) give the kind of performances we expect from fully professional actors in the state’s flag-ship theatre company. The production is as polished as the performances, and although it may seem a little slippery, that goes with this kind of farce, for which no excuses need to be made. Even when we begin to question the matter of timing, so soon after last Christmas, we realise that under the farcical surface it’s too dark for a pre-Christmas season, and perhaps we can only cope with its suburban truths through the objectivity of distance.
Directed by Michael Gow
Playing until 18 March 2006: Tuesdays at 6.30pm, Wednesday–Saturday 7.30pm, Wednesday matinees 1pm, Saturday matinees 2pm
Duration: 2 hours 40 minutes with a 20 minute interval