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Review: Absurd Person Singular, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
WRITTEN in 1972 and now revived in its original home in its 40th anniversary year, Absurd Person Singular was Alan Ayckbourn’s first three-act play.
When it transferred to the United States, producers sent letters to the Scarborough playwright to suggest he should reverse acts two and three as the last wasn’t as humorous as the first two. They were right, but so was he to refuse the ludicrous request, protecting the serious tone that took him for the first time into the political as well as social environment as his comedy moved out of the farce of the living room into the grittier kitchen.
The play is a clash of the classes involving three couples in three kitchens on three consecutive Christmases – last, this and next – in Ted Heath’s Conservative Seventies. A fourth couple, Dick and Lottie Potter, are regularly mentioned but never seen, having been cut in the creative process.
Don’t read too much into the title (it was announced publicly before the play’s content took shape) because there is more than one “absurd person” here.
More to the point, it is not that one person is singularly absurd, more that we English are absurd in our social climbing, our awful, awkward parties and the glass ceilings of our class system.
Ayckbourn opens with the play’s serial climber, tradesman Sidney Hopcroft (pencil slim and pencil-moustached Ben Porter) bullying his meek, OCD-obsessive wife Jane (Laura Doddington) as she “oh dear, oh dear” lets him down at party number one at Hopcroft HQ, when he is trying to ingratiate himself with bored, upper-class banker Ronald Brewster-Wright (Bill Champion) and his divorced-from-reality, boozy wife Marion (Sarah Parks).
Never mind that Sidney’s intimidating ways have left Jane feeling she has to stay out in the rain to avoid further embarrassment. It is painful and anger-inducing to watch and yet desperately funny: the essence of Ayckbourn comedy.
The second Christmas is even more so, being arguably one of his greatest ever acts. Eva Jackson (Ayesha Antoine) has been driven to the point of written suicide notes and silence by the philandering of bohemian, shambling architect husband Geoffrey (Richard Stacey). Their marriage collapsing like his designs, their Christmas party has him leaving the scruffy flat, and the trappist Eva failing miserably to kill herself as guests preoccupy themselves with assorted tasks in her wake, not noticing her state of pilled-up distress.
Ayckbourn’s stellar cast are in magnificent form in this tragicomic act, Antoine so expressive despite saying nothing, Champion, Doddington and the poshed-up Parks as enjoyable as ever on the Scarborough stage, and Porter a master of insensitivity.
A chill blows through act three, in the Brewster-Wright’s Victorian mansion, where the heating is on the blink, Marion permanently on the drink, Ronald frozen with indifference. Enter the uninvited ghost of England future, the by-now materialist, smug Hopcrofts.
A period piece it may be, but Absurd Person Singular’s English absurdities, class obsession and excruciating character traits ring as true as ever in Ayckbourn’s supremely assured, acerbic revival.
• Absurd Person Singular, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in summer rep until July 28 and September 14 to October 13. Box office: 01723 370541 or sjt.uk.com