At the ripe old age of 77, you could describe Sir Alan Ayckbourn as a veritable playwriting machine with 78 full length plays to his name and more awards than you can shake a stick at. I always think of him as pretty much unassailable when it comes to creating a well-made play that pleases its audience by bringing comedy and tragedy within spitting distance of each other and then seeing who comes out on top. Even in the early years, where his comedies seem much more classically “drawing-room” or “polite sex farce”, there was always that hint of menace lurking somewhere beneath the sheets.
A few of his plays have been referred to as his “science fiction” comedies. The excellent Communicating Doors involves time travel between twenty years ago and twenty years in the future. The hilarious Comic Potential is set in a time where androids perform in soap operas. For me his worst play (that I’ve seen anyway – controversial!) Improbable Fiction deteriorates from the relative sanity of a writers’ group to a fantasy imagination trip where the fictions of the first act become the facts of the second.
But the first of these experimental plays was Henceforward…, which was first performed in Scarborough (naturally) in 1987 and moved to the West End in 1988. Set some time in the near future, composer Jerome lives in a rough neighbourhood of London where violent vigilantes the Daughters of Darkness (I wonder if Tom Jones demands royalties?) have replaced the police as the only law enforcement agency. Neurotic wannabe actress Zoe has been hired by Jerome from an escort agency for purposes that are unclear at first. Jerome has had “composer’s block” ever since his estranged wife Corinna took his beloved daughter Geain away (that’s Jane, but with added pretentiousness) four years earlier. If only he could convince the authorities that he and his home are suitable for looking after a child, his worries would go away and he would become artistically fecund again. In the meantime, all he has for companionship is NAN 300F – a robot nanny, obsessed with washing people’s faces and bringing them milky drinks because she is automatically programmed to recognise everyone as a child. Jerome hatches a devious plan that uses all his available resources to convince the authorities and Corinna that he can take responsibility for Geain again. What is that plan, and does it work? You’ll have to watch it to find out.
If you put aside the science fiction element, you’re left with a fairly standard tale of a sad lonely man advertising for female companionship, which moves on to a Pygmalion-style farce of trying to impress the family with a beautiful girl who has no social ability unless it’s learned by rote. The science fiction element, however, gives it a fascinating window-dressing, which, with the benefit of hindsight, Ayckbourn got pretty spot-on. Giving NAN verbal instructions back in 1987 on how to do the housework could be replaced today by people asking Alexa to tell them jokes or put a record on. Unsurprisingly, when Jerome is confronted with choosing between real life or a robot, it’s not an easy decision for him to make. The Hi-tech composing board, camera security system, portable phones and oven facilities were all basically available back then (although, no doubt, cutting edge) but today are commonplace. The suggestion that a character is developing into a transgender identity must have been fairly surprising in 1987, whereas today it’s a phenomenon that most people accept without question. Plus ça change, etc.
What I feel the play lacks – a little – is that great Ayckbournian crunch between the comic and the tragic. In this play, the tragic elements are kept at arms’ length off-stage: the dystopian society; Jerome’s mate Lupus, constantly ringing in seeking support from his old friend which is never given; the physical assault Zoe receives on the way to the flat. We the audience don’t really come into contact with these elements. What we see instead is either hilarious, or neutral; and I felt the first act in particular was too long with its scene-setting and the general disengagement of the character of Jerome. There’s no question that you can set all that to one side once the second act has begun, but it does take some patience and indulgence towards the author to get that far.
However, the play does benefit from an excellent cast. I thought Laura Matthews as Zoe was absolutely first rate all the way through. A really bright presence on stage, conveying all that nervousness of the young actress in a strange man’s house, needing a job but with no knowledge of what it would entail; crying, then laughing, then crying again within a split second or two. Her second half performance requires a completely different skillset and she performs it admirably! Bill Champion is required to be downbeat as Jerome throughout much of the first act but he comes back to life vigorously in Act Two and his alternating portrayal of self-satisfaction and frustrated disappointment is very enjoyable to watch.
Jacqueline King is brilliant as the no-nonsense, no-warmth Corinna, dominating much of the action in the second half whilst seeking to catch Jerome out any way she can; very ominously coming out of character occasionally in the first act, to add that vital ingredient of menace. Nigel Hastings makes an excellent job of presenting us with the pettiness and vanity of the pernickety safeguarding supremo Mervyn; and Jessie Hart gives us a brief but extremely effective portrayal of Geain, proving beyond any doubt how a child can change in four years.
This production, directed by Ayckbourn himself, started at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, and still has Windsor and Cambridge to visit. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and the science fiction/robotics angle can act as a barrier to understanding the humanity lurking beneath. But it is there, the second act shenanigans are extremely funny, and at the end it’s satisfying to see everything fitting into place. Is it an optimistic ending? No, it’s as bleak as hell. But it’s right.