ALAN Ayckbourn is the only notable British writer that confines his talent to purely writing for the stage. For over six decades, his people observations, viewed from a multitude of auditoriums, has made us laugh and cringe in equal measures.
‘Absurd Person Singular’ premiered in 1972 – two decades into Ayckbourn’s career and when he really started to dig his fingers deeply into the stuff of middle class souls.
Ayckbourn also sets his plays in unlikely places – here the three acts are set in three kitchens on three consecutive Christmas Eves.
The company consists of three couples – the Hopcrofts (Paul Sandys and Felicity Houlbrooke), the Jacksons (John Dorney and Helen Keeley) and the Brewster-Wrights (Graham O’Mara and Rosanna Miles). Director Michael Cabot is well served by them all – with both carefully carved individual performances and exquisitely integrated ensemble work – even through to doing their own scene changes.
The curtain opens on the Hopcrofts, who’s kitchen is so clean you could eat off the floor. It also contains the new wonder gadget – a washing machine!
Sidney and Jane maybe the ‘hosts with the most’ but it soon becomes evident that they consider themselves at the bottom of the social ladder pecking order, and their neighbours treat them accordingly. Snide comments abound as the hapless duo turn in desperate circles to please and impress their betters.
Act Two and it’s Christmas Eve at the Jacksons, where Eva sits in silence writing out suicide notes in amongst the debris of a neglected kitchen – here a giant dog rules roost. Bullish husband Geoffrey bounds in full of Christmas spirit – it transpires he told Eva at breakfast he is leaving her for a younger model – but not ‘til Boxing Day, so they can enjoy the festive season like adults. They have forgotten Christmas Eve guests coming and whilst Geoffrey answers the doorbell, Eva tries various ways to kill herself.
Enter the Hopcrofts where Jane misreads Eva staring at the oven as her desire to clean it rather than turn on the gas and end things – natural gas having not yet arrived to make this an impracticable solution. Jane goes to work with a bottle of Vim.
The Brewster-Wrights appear and whilst Marion hits the bottle, Ronald tries to fix a broken light. Sidney brings some order to the chaos whilst he unblocks the sink , which Eva has filled with pills.
The pecking order has changed. The Hopcrofts may be the below stairs, or rather below sink and oven couple but they are issuing orders rather than taking them.
The final act is set in the plush kitchen of the Brewster –Wrights – but how the mighty have fallen – Marion is now an alcoholic rarely leaving her bedroom and Ronald has big money problems to the point of not being able to afford heating.
Eva and Geoffrey arrive on this third Christmas Eve where Eva is back in control of their relationship and a chastened Geoffrey has turned from hound dog to poodle.
The Hopcrofts are not invited but turn up anyway dressed in expensive clothes and bearing poignant gifts. They are now despised but feared and well and truly at the top of the ladder. They reduce the others to objects of ridicule, puppetry and servitude.
This is a historical as well as hysterical piece – I had forgotten that back in the early 70s you wore a suit to go for dinner at the neighbours, you invited your boss and his wife to dinner and planned the event with military precision.
Christmas was the time when offices were crammed with expensive gifts from suppliers. Husbands gave wives presents of spin dryers and irons and went to the pub on Sundays whilst the wife prepared the roast. It’s easy to forget how far society has evolved.
Today the cooking is shared whilst one of the parents takes the children or grandchildren for a swim or a kick about in the park (pre-Covid of course).
We may not be totally classless or colourblind yet, but those of us who are old enough to reflect on this era can look back with incredulity and not a little discomfort on how we were.
‘Absurd Person Singular’ is a highly enjoyable classic black comedy on a national tour by the London Classic Theatre Company; catch it till Saturday, July 3 at Malvern and then at many other theatres throughout the rest of the year.
Click here for times, tickets and more information.
Review by Euan Rose.