The Theatreguide.London Review
Absurd Person Singular
Garrick Theatre Winter 2007-2008
Alan Ayckbourn's 1972 comedy is one of his best, and one of the first that demonstrated what would become his signature, the mix of high comedy, low farce and a peep at the hidden unhappiness beneath them.
At its best, it can have you laughing out loud, almost continuously, only to be caught up short as you realise the seriousness underlying the comedy. And the current production, imperfect as it is, captures about 75% of this, which may be enough for you.
This is the one set in three kitchens on three consecutive Christmas Eves, charting the adventures of three very different couples. Act One is hosted by a shopkeeper and his wife as they entertain an architect and banker he hopes to do business with, with the humour coming from the hostess's nervousness and compulsive cleaning-up, and the guests' out-of-place-ness in this downmarket home.
Act Two finds us at the architect's just as he's told his wife he's leaving her, so that she spends the evening trying to kill herself, only to be repeatedly foiled by the innocent intervention of the others, who have no idea what she's up to.
(The first time I saw the play, it was midway through this act, as I was in pain from laughing at the tight choreography of the repeated near-misses that it suddenly hit me that there was a deeply unhappy character on that stage, and I realised there was a lot more to Alan Ayckbourn than I had suspected.)
In Act Three, at the banker's, fortunes have shifted, marital dynamics have changed, and now the others need the newly rich and powerful shopkeeper and find themselves literally dancing to his tune.
The current production has a first-rate cast, with people like David Bamber, Jane Horrocks, John Gordon Sinclair and Jenny Seagrove directed by David Strachan. But it has the low-energy feel of a second-level touring company.
At its best it stays out of the way of the play, allowing much of the humour and hints of the pathos to come through, but it adds very little of its own.
Part of the problem lies in the fact that too few of the people on that stage are natural clowns. They work hard at the comedy, but you can see them working, and that gets in the way of the fun.
As the snooty and increasingly alcoholic banker's wife, for example, Jenny Seagrove always seems a beat behind in her bemused reactions to the downmarket kitchen in Act One, and she can't even generate much comedy out of a sure-fire drunk scene in the last act.
As the shopkeeper, David Bamber is always an actor playing generic prissy-little-man, and with no reality at the core of the character, his move from butt of the jokes to domineering monster has no power.
Jane Horrocks is good as the harried housfrau of Act One, but seems to lose her hold on the character as the play progresses, while John Gordon Sinclair's strongest contribution is suppressing his natural charm to play the slimy architect.
Director Alan Strachan is not a natural farceur, either, as is particularly evident in Act Two, where what should be silent-movie-comedy timing and choreography is flaccid.
75% of Ayckbourn at his best is better than most other comic writers. But playwright and audiences deserve more.
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