Absurd Person Singular
Cambridge Arts Theatre
Reviewed – 7th September 2021
“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
Previously reviewed at this venue this year: