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Ayesha Antoine ‘overwhelmed’ by double dose of Ayckbourn
THE last time Ayesha Antoine performed in an Alan Ayckbourn play, she found herself up against Anne Hathaway and Laura Linney in the Drama Desk Awards in New York in 2010.
Ayckbourn’s world premiere of My Wonderful Day had transferred from its Stephen Joseph Theatre debut in Scarborough to Brits Off Broadway Festival, where Ayesha, then 28, reprised her role as eight-year-old schoolgirl Winnie Barnstairs.
For Ayesha, it was her wonderful year in an unforgettable role, and now she has returned to Scarborough to appear in two more Ayckbourn plays: the 40th anniversary revival of Absurd Person Singular, which is already running, and the world premiere of Surprises, from July 12.
First, however, Ayesha reflects on playing Winnie. “When Alan Ayckbourn does a new play everyone knows about it and everyone wants to be in it, but Winnie was a very specific part and they were struggling to cast it, as they didn’t want a child to play it,” she says. “It took a lot of persistence on the part of my agent, Michele Milburn, to get me the audition.”
Looking back, Ayesha says the whole experience was “overwhelming”. “Meeting Alan Ayckbourn, working in Scarborough, it was like a dream – and then to do it in New York, where I have family, I was so lucky! The dream just kept going.”
Since My Wonderful Day finished its New York run in March 2010, Ayesha has done plenty of theatre work in new plays in London, and last year she appeared at the Sheffield Crucible Theatre in Eclipse Theatre’s One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show.
“I was always hoping for the next chance to work with Alan Ayckbourn. We kept in touch a lot as My Wonderful Day was very emotional for both of us,” says Ayesha.
“We’re quite similar: we’re quite humble – well, he is! – quite shy and quite socially awkward, so we have this link where we just understand each other.
“I grew up so much in terms of my acting skills in 2009, and I feel so secure working with Alan as a director. He has such a light touch, and I remember his advice when I was playing Winnie was, ‘Don’t rush it; hold your nerve’.
“I just think he appreciates the same things as his actors. He wants calm and confidence in the rehearsal room, and it really suits me being in Scarborough, where it’s all about the play and the details. You feel spoiled working with Alan because you’re working with the writer, so you feel confident in the choices you make.”
The chance to appear in Absurd Person Singular and Surprises came when Alan sent Ayesha an email saying, “No more empty promises: how about working on these plays?”
“I read them and I was totally overwhelmed: they’re both completely different from Winnie. I’d always thought he’d want to cast me in a similar role, but not at all,” says Ayesha.
In Absurd Person Singular, Ayckbourn’s Seventies’ tale of three kitchens, Christmas catastrophes and calculated social climbing, she plays Eva Jackson. “She’s married to Geoffrey, a philandering architect, and she’s very complex, sending out distress signals. Alan writes brilliantly about people in crisis, and in this case it’s about an unhappy marriage and how she copes with it,” says Ayesha.
From playing a troubled woman in her early 30s – her own age – Ayesha will switch to a teenager in Surprises, a comedy spun around amorous strangers, time travel and the quest for love everlasting. “I play Grace, who’s 16. I’d say she’s a typical teen…but that’s not all because there’s time travel and I love all things sci-fi!” she says.
“Grace is discovering love, like most teenagers, and like most teenagers she believes she’s the first to discover love and it’s the strongest love there’s ever been!”
Playing a teenager will be “good fun”. “It’s not a massive stretch for me physically but what is exciting is the constraints of the world, where, as with all teenagers, she feels she has something to fight against,” says Ayesha.
“Grace is also a thinker and a doer, rather than someone who’s a quiet or silent victim, and she goes on a massive journey in the play. What it says about Alan is that he has a lot of admiration for young people and their get-up-and-go.”
• Absurd Person Singular runs on various dates in the repertory season at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, until July 28 and from September 14 to October 13; Surprises runs from July 12 to 28 and September 11 to October 13. Box office: 01723 370541 or online at sjt.uk.com