Paul Sandys as Sidney, Graham O'Mara as Ronald, Rosanna Miles as Mariom, Felicity Houlbrooke as Jane and Helen Keeley as Eva in another festive farrago.  Pictures:  Sheila Burnett

Absurd Person Singular

Coventry Belgrade


Amazingly, Alan Ayckbourn penned Absurd Person Singular almost exactly fifty years ago (in 1972). In the sense that it has enjoyed numerous performances, it has lived a remarkable life since then.

That was the time when Harold Pinter was at his height, Howard Brenton well on his way, Joe Orton only recently dead (murdered by his male lover), Tom Stoppard at last a major success, and Willy Russell (Educating Rita) still in his mid-twenties, and a decade after Beyond the Fringe, Alan Bennett had written five stageworks including 40 Years On.

Ayckbourn (now knighted and just past his 80th birthday) is recognised as one of the ten most popular and performed British playwright of today.

It’s likely the Belgrade have staged Absurd Person Singular before – and equally, for instance, his early hits Relatively Speaking, The Norman Conquests and How The Other Half Lives. This London Classic Theatre production (Director: Michael Cabot) varied between the frankly dreadful, the not bad and the really rather funny and successful.

If the First Act seemed totally lacklustre, it could be argued it was not the cast’s fault, but the script’s. Ayckbourn’s aim may have been to introduce the characters – the lower-middle class nouveau plus his frantically domestic-obsessed (and presumably bored) wife (Paul Sandys and Felicity Houlbrooke (sic)), a genial upper-class pair who are heading for a fall and the utterly disparate couple whose marriage is on edge because of his randy excursions and her edge of madness disillusion.

The play is supposedly full of financial implications, for all three twosomes. Virtually none of this came across, but even as a secondary subject (subordinate to their very different natures) it is not a very interesting one. Quite precise comments about social distancing got lost in the flurry.

Luckily the range of characterisation saved the evening, which got better and better – both in Ayckbourn’s pretty pallid script and the actors’ vain but valiant efforts to do it justice.

It’s a bit like Waiting For Godot without the wit, irony or mastery. It took eight minutes till the audience’s first laugh – which I think says something.

absurd middle

John Dorney as Geoffrey, Felicity Houlbrooke as Jane and  Paul Sandys as Sidney

In 18th century opera the Aristocratic (or Imperial) sponsor used to provide – often – for just five singers and/or actors. Absurd Person Singular opts for just six, and although one finds something not wholly dissimilar in, for example, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons (10 characters), one of those is a small boy who provides a glorious contrast by bringing out the smug character of the hero/villain, here we have no such diversion.

There are children in these families: might it not have been useful to introduce them, even slightly, into this pretty lame story? Even Richard III has the glorious antics of the King with his doomed small nephews, and King John the vital character of the equally ill-fated Prince Arthur; we needed additional contrasts; and we did not get them.  

Only the appearance of the tall, rather presumptuously aristocratic banker Ronald Brewster-White (Graham O’Mara) and his hyperactive, social-climbing wife (Marion (‘’your divine kitchen’) Rosanna Miles) gave a palpable uplift to Act I.

 The notable reason Act II picks up is because of the – it seems ironic – hilarious depression and sequence of suicide attempts by Helen Keeley’s Eva Jackson, offset by her in-out, frankly ignoring husband Geoffrey (John Dorney, who managed to make the most changeable and patently unreliable and untrustworthy one of the sextet).

Eva manages to commit suicide attempts in four or even five different ways, and her violent pink dressing gown only added to the humour of this crisis – although Ayckbourn may have not meant it to be as comic as Cabot, very amusingly, chose to play it.

Kitchen knife, rope, gas oven all play a role, neatly interrupted, to her despair, by other characters in turn. The play thus takes a marked uplift; something is actually happening (or not quite happening).

 Helen Keeley as Eva Jackson

 Helen Keeley as the suicidal Eva Jackson

The use of a barking dog of which everyone in turn is terrified was even funnier than the suicide bids; an electrocuting light fixture (O’Mara) less so, even though it was funny, because it took too long a sequence and thus became blisteringly obvious and anticipated. 

Simon Scullion’s set proved a success in providing three different kitchen-dining rooms; with a set that swung 180 degrees round (so doors opened inwards rather than outwards: especially as Act III (adjusted, not swung) could have looked too much like Act II – and didn’t. But the First Act – Paul Sandy’s Sidney Hopcraft has not yet made the big time - looked a far inferior invention than many an amateur production (though it did support wife Jane’s obsessive cleaning efforts, which she exports to Act II with hilarious effect).

In fact I’ve seen tangibly better set designs in plenty of School productions, even though what emerged later was fortunately much better. Sidney’s suited costume (designer or at least selector Kate Lyons) was also (deliberately) simplistic, but scarcely helped lift, diminish or enhance the banality of the earlier scenes (or half-scenes).

Actually we – and they – were lucky that the upward curve continued with Act III. Here Marion’s (Rosanna Miles’) antics become even more frenetic – those were fun – the crazy bursting of all in turn into The 12 Days of Christmas (including, inevitably, a much-repeated ‘partridge in a pear tree’ was a most entertaining ensemble, references to broken marriages grew almost sinister.

Above all, Sidney’s (Sandys’) determination to fix everything to do with sinks. and other domestic appliances (in contrast to his uninteresting Act I) supplied the rummest, most droll moments of perhaps the whole play: Ayckbourn having almost woken up to elicit true comedy (and Cabot’s direction of these was a significant, marked success).

So did Absurd Person Singular make for a great evening? Categorically not. It was not the Belgrade’s best moment, or even up to Belgrade’s best and maturest standards, particularly under Hamish Glen’s Artistic Direction, and even back to Ed Thomason’s time in joint charge. The production opened in Derby last week and continues on a national tour running to mid October with the next stop Malvern Theatres next week, 29 June to 3 July.

Roderic Dunnett


Index page Belgrade Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre