ABSURD PERSON SINGULAR
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 16th October, 2012
Three Christmas Eves, three kitchens, and three couples. Ayckbourn’s play from the 1970s seems deceptively straightforward. Each of the acts is an exercise in comedy of some kind: comedy of manners, black comedy, slapstick and the traditional bringing authority figures into ridicule… to name but a few. By the end of the evening, the play has charted the rise of petit bourgeois Sidney, the upwardly mobile shopkeeper and small businessman. Along the way he becomes a monster and a boor, but the others, the bank manager with whom he invests, and the disgraced architect desperate for work, have to dance to his tune – or rather freeze when he stops the music. Within the couples, fortunes rise and fall: Hopcroft’s cleaning-obsessed wife becomes his equal; suicidal Eva reins in her philandering husband and takes charge of his business affairs ; and Marion, the bank manager’s wife sinks from snobby disdain to rampant alcoholism.
Yes, there is darkness permeating their lives but for the audience it is a treat to sit back and watch as this finely tuned clockwork reveals its delights. As Sidney, Ben Porter stands out, at first neurotic and slimy, he gains confidence as his empire grows. Laura Doddington is a hoot as downtrodden Jane who is able to enjoy herself when Sidney gains other victims to bully. Ayesha Antoine’s Eva gives us contrasts: the strung out on antidepressants woman at the start could not be more different to the hardened and focussed wife at the end. And yet it is in the second act, in which she doesn’t say a word, that she really shines as each mute attempt to top herself with whatever’s handy in her kitchen, is hilariously and unwittingly thwarted by her unwelcome guests. Richard Stacey plays her husband Geoff, perhaps the least exaggerated character of the bunch and the architect of his own downfall. Bill Champion brings a note of pathos to befuddled bank manager Ronald, still puzzling over why his first wife left him, and Sarah Parks’s Marion descends into drunkenness with a startlingly well-observed performance.
I’ve seen this play several times but never before in a production directed by Alan Ayckbourn himself. Here the class distinctions seem sharper, the darkness casts a longer shadow. When first produced, the play must have seemed prescient about the rise of the Thatcherite, the businessman over the professional and the powerful. Now it seems to hint that the banks are hopeless and we must all kowtow to private enterprise – the power is in Hopcroft’s greedy hands and he is a brute without taste, grace or concern for public welfare.