Cambridge Arts Theatre, Cambridge – until Saturday 11 September 2021
Reviewed by Steph Lott
Three kitchens. Three married couples. Three acts. All your worst Christmases come at once. Alan Ayckbourns Absurd Person Singular was written almost 50 years ago and as I watched the story unfold, behaviour was presented on stage that was accepted as standard 50 years ago but now jars, when it’s presented as comedy.
For many reasons it makes for an uncomfortable performance. At times, it’s horribly amusing. At others, it’s merely sad and not funny at all. The piece combines barbed yet screamingly funny dialogue with slick and creative stagecraft, all delivered with great skill by an extremely accomplished cast. However there are attitudes and scenes which we just don’t see as funny anymore. I think we know better.
Set in the 1970s with maxi dresses, loud wallpaper (which is now back in fashion I believe! Well I liked it anyway…) we start the play with Sydney and Jane Hopcroft, anxiously waiting for their guests to arrive, guests who they clearly think are above them in the social pecking order and whom they need to impress if Sydney is to succeed.
The performances, from Paul Sandys as Sydney, and Felicity Houlbrooke as Jane, are finely observed. Both are not that bright, relentlessly cheerful and very eager to please their guests. However, by the end of the first act, the menace of the play has started. Sydney exudes a smarmy charm to his wife, but there is a sinister edge in the way he behaves towards Jane if she fails to please him.
In this first act, we are introduced to the other 2 couples. Sydney and Jane are entertaining banker Ronald Brewster-Wright, (played by Graham O’Mara) from whom he hopes to obtain a loan, and his snobbish wife Marion, played with ghastly glee by Rosanna Miles. In attendance also are architect Geoffrey Jackson (played by John Dorney) and his wife Eva. There is a creepy conversation between Geoffrey and Ronald about wives and women, which made my flesh crawl. All this signposts what unfolds in the next 2 acts.
In act 2 Eva has had enough of her husband’s philandering, and doubtless his boorish and uncaring behaviour, and attempts to commit suicide amidst another party gathering of the same people. Helen Keeley, who plays Eva, steals the scene whilst saying almost nothing, and descending in and out of an almost catatonic state, trying various methods of killing herself. The other four remain so blithely wrapped up in their own affairs that they fail to notice, whilst her husband has gone to fetch medical help.
The third and final act takes place at Ronald and Marion’s house. Marion is now a bed-bound alcoholic but rouses herself for a Christmas drink with Eva, Geoffrey and her husband. Unfortunately, in a grotesque finale, the Hopcrofts arrive uninvited and unwanted, armed with crass gifts. Finally, in a reflection of his new status, Sidney coerces them into playing a ridiculous game, finally making them literally dance to his tune.
Ayckbourn’s writing is superb and there are some brilliant throwaway lines which I won’t repeat here for fear of spoiling the performance. The cast performed with great timing and pace and the director Michael Cabot did a good job; I did enjoy watching it. However the play is somewhat of an anachronism now and I wonder if there are not better Ayckbourn plays to stage.