“As the comedy takes a darker turn, Helen Keeley gives the performance of the night”
Alan Ayckbourn’s classic comedy is fast approaching its fiftieth anniversary and in this touring production by London Classic Theatre, directed by Michael Cabot, it is aging well.
Three acts are set in three different kitchens on three consecutive 1970s Christmas Eves – enigmatically described as last year, this year, and next year – and in Simon Scullion’s clever set design we see the necessary changes in windows, doors, and decor to distinguish the three different households.
The first kitchen we see is in the home of Jane and Sidney Hopcroft. Sidney (Paul Sandys) is an up-and-coming businessman using a party to further his relationship with bank manager Ronald Brewster-Wright (Graham O’Mara) and established architect Geoffrey Jackson (John Dorney). Sidney’s wife Jane (Felicity Houlbrooke) has cleaned their home to a spotless condition but is nervous of doing anything that could be conceived embarrassing. With frantic energy the couple go through their party preparations, their frenzied activity reminiscent of many a TV sitcom.
Ayckbourn is a master of placing central events offstage so that we have a sense of being behind the scenes. Here, the party is in full swing in the living room, behind the kitchen door, so an entrance on stage is an exit from the party. Full marks to Sound Designer Chris Drohan for the convincing snatches of offstage conversation and laughter, and the excellent effect of heavy rain falling in the garden. Courageous direction reinforces this action elsewhere by leaving the stage empty and the audience waiting for something to happen, perhaps on some occasions for too long.
Eventually, all the guests appear in the kitchen – except, amusingly, the lively Dick and Lottie Potter who are only ever talked about and never appear. One laddish conversation between the three men with near-misogynistic attitudes helps us understand an element of Geoffrey’s womanising nature but otherwise, in our age of #MeToo, feels inappropriate rather than comedic.
We are also introduced in this scene to Marion Brewster-Wright (Rosanna Miles) who shows excellent changes in vocal quality from a highly exuberant party voice to a low threatening growl when admonishing her husband; and Eva Jackson (Helen Keeley) who is the first character to hint at something more serious than the shallow party talk of the other two couples.
Act Two moves into the Dorney’s more well-appointed apartment kitchen. As the comedy takes a darker turn, Helen Keeley gives the performance of the night, expressing her inner turmoil and scribbling desperate notes, without speaking a word. Around her, the others continue their antics oblivious to her plight and the company induces our laughter despite Eva’s pain.
The final kitchen is in the home of the Brewster-Wrights, the largest residence of our three couples, but there has clearly been a downturn in their luck and with that of Geoff Dorney whose only hope for future success appears to lie with Sydney. When the Hopcrofts arrive unannounced, we see that it is Sydney alone who has had a successful year, but for the other two couples he will always be the little man.
An Ayckbourn trait is that his stories, snapshots of imagined lives, never really end. And so the curtain falls on the rising Sidney leading the others in a not-so-merry dance. Whilst we laugh.
Reviewed by Phillip Money
Photography by Sheila Burnett
Absurd Person Singular
Cambridge Arts Theatre until 11th September then UK Tour continues
“With the excellence of the three actors’ diction and their evident belief in their doctrines, I can convince myself I even understand it all”
Why did the physicist Werner Heisenberg visit his former colleague Niels Bohr in Copenhagen in 1941? Heisenberg was German, Bohr Danish and half-Jewish, and Copenhagen was under Nazi occupation. It is a question we hear asked on numerous occasions during Michael Frayn’s award-winning play from 1998, in this new production directed by Emma Howlett following initial direction by Polly Findlay.
There are just three characters in the re-enactment of this puzzling wartime conundrum. The impetuous, excitable Heisenberg played by the excellent Philip Arditti, the older and more ponderous Bohr (Malcolm Sinclair), and between them Bohr’s wife Margrethe (Haydn Gwynne).
There is minimal set (designed by Alex Eales) with the stage stripped back to its black painted walls. A few parlour chairs and a sideboard suffice for Bohr’s drawing room. Hovering above everything is a large illuminated white halo; at the beginning, perhaps indicating the movement of an electron orbiting its atomic nucleus. By the end of the play, surely portraying the rim of an exploding mushroom cloud. Beneath it, there is not much in the way of movement, the three players pace up and down, placing and replacing chairs in a series of socially-distanced triangles. For one brief moment, Heisenberg breaks out into a short run.
What we do have are words, lots of them: quantum mechanics, the wave equation, the Copenhagen Interpretation, relativity, uncertainty, complementarity. Heisenberg and Bohr discuss and defend their treatises, their arguments flying back and forth like others may argue the merits of a United versus a City. Between them sits Margrethe, sometime observer, sometime inquisitor, umpire, and arbiter. It is a delightful irony that she is the one who offers up the clearest explanation of any of the physics talk, pragmatically bringing the scientific theories down to earth.
With the excellence of the three actors’ diction and their evident belief in their doctrines, I can convince myself I even understand it all. Arditti’s performance is full of energy, with driving momentum in his attempt to prove that Heisenberg’s motives should not be misunderstood. Sinclair’s twinkly eyed portrayal of Bohr shows us a lot of his charm but, through all the science, we do not see much of the man beneath. Haydn Gwynne emphasises Margrethe’s support as the scientist’s wife. Her loving glances towards Heisenberg as he replaces the son she tragically lost, turn into steely stares as she mistrusts his motives towards her husband.
Heisenberg is primarily remembered for his Uncertainty Principle. And the play exploits the notion that there is so much uncertainty about Heisenberg himself. To what extent did he deliberately slow down any progress in developing a Nazi atomic bomb, or did he just not understand enough of the science? And as we take another look at Heisenberg arriving on Bohr’s doorstep in 1941 is it to gloat over the progress of the German nuclear programme, or to suggest a scientists’ pledge not to work for either side in developing an ultimate weapon of mass destruction?
The most poignant moment of the evening comes as Heisenberg explains hearing about the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima whilst interned at Farm Hall in Godmanchester. This fact is first enjoyed by this audience as a piece of local history, but then the penny drops that all this talk about science is not just theoretical but can lead to such apocalyptic results.
So why did Heisenberg visit Copenhagen in 1941? Heisenberg’s final words, “Uncertainty [is] at the heart of things”.
Reviewed by Phillip Money
Photography by Nobby Clark
Cambridge Arts Theatre until 17th July then UK tour concludes at the Rose Theatre Kingston