Absurd Person Singular
Absurd is the word in Sutton Arts Theatre’s latest production of classic farce ‘Absurd Person Singular’, directed by Barrie Atchison.
First performed in 1972, this black comedy from the prolific Alan Ayckbourn (84 full length plays and counting) time travels across three years to chart the changing lives and fortunes of three married couples over three successive Christmas Eve parties. The playwright’s own insistence that this early 1970s period piece should include a note in the programme stating the era of the play to put it into context is telling: it is certainly of its time and although dated in many respects, still delivers laughs and was much enjoyed by the opening night audience.
Ayckbourn has referred to ‘Absurd Person Singular’ as his first “offstage action play” which neatly captures the cleverly structured storytelling at work. Much happens both outside and in different rooms of the three couples’ houses during the action, as well as in the intervening years between the parties: but we never see it. Picturing an unseen dog as we hear it barking madly and wondering if we’ll ever get to meet the elusive Dick and Lottie Potter is just part of the fun. Set designer Paul Westcott’s three very different kitchens, the locations for each of the parties, work nicely to create a sense of time and place beyond the boundaries of the stage.
The kitchen of Sydney and Jane Hopcroft, an abrasively ambitious tradesman and his submissive wife, provides the setting for the first act. There’s an unsettling menace and ruthlessness in Stuart Goodwin’s Sydney: this is a man prepared to do anything to make his name and he won’t allow his wife to get in the way of a business opportunity. As she frantically cleans the kitchen and panics about the arrival of their guests, Michelle Dawes captures the anxiety of 1970s housewife Jane in a perfectly flustered performance. The cracks in this marriage are immediately apparent and despite farcical moments (fly spray is mistakenly used as air freshener and Jane is locked outside in the rain) the gathering only becomes more strained when the guests arrive.
Ayckbourn’s themes of social class and mobility become more apparent as we meet the play’s other two couples: the Jacksons and the Brewster-Wrights. If tradesman Sydney is an underdog figure striving to make his way, architect Geoffrey Jackson and banker Ronald Brewster-Wright, played by Richard Clarke and Phil Shaw, are the privileged overdogs. Slips on the social ladder over time provide much of the social commentary, and laughs, within the play as fortunes change and power dynamics shift, within marriages as well as between friends.
Richard Clarke’s adulterous Geoffrey is an aloof and dismissive figure: when the action shifts in the second act to his kitchen and he tells his wife he intends to leave her he is brutally matter-of-fact. The role of Eva Jackson is a challenge: Lynette Coffey rises to it in a performance which is both tragic and darkly comic. Not an easy note to strike when themes of suicide, adultery and domestic violence are very close to the surface. A striking tableau at the end of the act is the most disturbing and strangely funny rendition of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ you're ever likely to hear.
The last act takes place in the Brewster-Wright kitchen. Sarah Stanley is a brilliantly convincing drunk as Marion, the hostess of the final nightmare Christmas Eve gathering and Phil Shaw is endearing as her baffled husband Ron, struggling to understand his wife and bewildered in his own home. There is an authentic connection in the performances despite the emotional gulf between the characters.
The thin line between tragedy and comedy is not always trodden as well as it might be in this production of what is often considered the playwright’s best work, but the performances are strong and it delivers plenty of laughs. Dated but relevant. Dark but light. Serious but funny. ‘Absurd Person Singular’ combines farce with social realism and remains an Ayckbourn play well worth seeing.
‘Absurd Person Singular’ is playing at Sutton Arts Theatre from 30th January to 8th February 2020