ABSURD PERSON SINGULAR
by Alan Ayckbourn
Arts Club Theatre Company
Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage (Granville at 12th)
February 2-March 5
When first staged in the mid-1970s, Alan Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular registered in chilling comic form the momentous changes underway in Britain that would result a few years later in Margaret Thatcher’s ascension to power.
The black comedy-bordering-on-farce charts the rise and fall of three couples in three kitchens over three Christmases. On the rise are the Hopcrofts, small-business entrepreneurs whose down-market boorishness and Philistine tastes are scorned by the genteel banker and his wife, Ronald and Marion Brewster-Wright, and the trendy upper-mids, architect Geoffrey and wife Eva. But the architect is incompetent, the banker hopelessly inept, and their unglamorously desperate housewives are suicidal and alcoholic.
Sidney and Jane, with their working-class names, have the vitality and ability—the hop and the craft—that their decadent social betters lack. They’ll end up inheriting the earth. Trouble is, Sidney’s values are despicable. He’s a bottom-line developer of shoddy projects whose ethical code is “dog eat dog . . . no place for sentiment.” And he bullies his wife brutally.
Not that such types have disappeared or these issues become irrelevant. Far from it. Yet the play has lost some immediacy. The 1970’s styles and class attitudes give it a distinct period feel. What remains constant is Ayckbourn’s clever comic construction and his characters’ bleak hilarity. The latter gets full value in Bernard Cuffling’s crackling Arts Club production.
Playing ex-Navy man Sid with brisk bonhomie, Tom Scholte makes him both believably good-humoured and callously calculating. Leslie Jones’ Jane, with big hair and a hideous dress, goes along with Sid’s program and sublimates his cruelty towards her into fanatical cleaning. Jones’ comic genius resides in her gestural detail: the face she makes when locked out of her own party in the pouring rain or the way she crosses her legs as if to keep from peeing when sharing a laugh with Sid.
Janet Wright shows why her current success in Corner Gas is no accident. Her Marion drips comic contempt with scathing deadpan accuracy. “Oh…” she purrs in horror at Jane’s garish yellow kitchen, “isn’t this…gorgeous.” She’s no less contemptuous commenting on her husband’s hollowness or her own self-loathing. Allan Gray plays Ronald with a kind of clueless dignity, even when he’s practically electrocuted and has to wear ladies’ underwear over his head.
Fresh off his summer as Hamlet, Bob Frazer plays the callow architect with just the right amount of false conceit. And Naomi Wright shines as semi-catatonic Eva in the classic second act when her half-dozen various attempts at suicide drive the other characters into a comic frenzy of self-involvement.
Too bad the two intermissions are such momentum killers. Might not the cast change costumes and the crew revolve the set without twenty-minute breaks in between?