Theatre and book reviews by Janice Dempsey
Comedy with bite, farce with an edge, a great night out after so long away from live theatre.
Only Alan Ayckbourn can make me writhe with embarrassed laughter — and recognition — with each turn of phrase and plot. ‘Absurd Person Singular’, written in 1972, presents us with three consecutive Christmas Eves and three of the couples from whose social pretentions, misogyny and sheer mutual incomprehension Ayckbourn has so often derived farce and ironic tragi-comedy.
Christmas Eve — the kitchen of Jane and Sidney Hopcraft (Felicity Houlbrooke and Paul Sandys) is the control room of Sidney’s strategic cocktail party, which should set him on the path to financial success, from the low base of his small corner shop. He is the commander and Jane the cringing subordinate responsible for all practical arrangements. ‘Don’t let me down, Jane’ is his bullying refrain. Jane struggles farcically to cope with the pressures of ‘keeping up appearances’ while entertaining social ‘betters’ on whom their ambitions depend. Timid, humiliated and scorned, she develops in the final act to become, literally, a gleeful echo of her husband. Paul Sandys as Sidney brings out all the nastiness and amorality of the character whom we will experience with amused horror in the last act.
In the Hopcrafts’ kitchen we meet Eva and Geoffrey Jackson, clearly not in control of their lives. Geoffrey is amoral and ambitious, played with flexible ease by John Dorney. Eva (Helen Keely) is broken by Geoffrey’s womanising and, as we later see, desperate for affection from her selfish, facile, drunken husband. By the third act we understand that she is now the stronger of the two. In between, her breakdown is played for laughs — she sits traumatised trying to compose suicide notes while the other couples acknowledge her only with conventional noises, talking and pursuing their own lines of thought and action in parallel with each other, everyone disconnected. Great ensemble acting as a kind of temporary teamwork is orchestrated by the ostensibly weak Hopcrafts.
By Act 3 we’re starting to understand the plight of Ronald Brewster-Wright and his wife Marian (Roseanna Miles). He’s ably played by Graham O’Mara as the least obnoxious of the play’s characters, mystified and confused by his relationships with women. Marian, a patronising snob, becomes a helpless drunk; I found myself worrying for her as the Hopcrafts become winners and avengers, calling the tune in the social game Ayckbourn sets up for his characters.
This is comedy with an edge. Despite the many moments of sheer farce, if we didn’t laugh so much we might cry for the characters in this social parable.