Review – Henceforward…, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 7th February 2017

HenceforwardAt 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.

jerome-and-nanA 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.

zoe-and-nanBut 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.

zoe-and-jeromeIf 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.

zoeWhat 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.

zoe-and-jeromeHowever, 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.

corinna-jerome-and-zoeJacqueline 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.

zoe-and-geainThis 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.

Review – This Is My Family, Studio at the Crucible, Sheffield, 13th July 2013

This Is My FamilyThe last time we saw Calendar Girls (the play), I didn’t like it much. I liked the film and the original stage production at Chichester a lot, but by the time it had toured and toured and toured it had got a bit tired. However, fresh as a daisy and brightly emotional comes a new work from the pen of Tim Firth, This Is My Family – a rather pedestrian title for an intricately woven little musical of a “typical” family – bonkers Grandma, well-meaning and inept dad, overworked mum, promiscuous auntie, Goth teenage son, cheeky teenage daughter. It’s full of charm, comic insights and affectionate characterisation.

Evelyn HoskinsThe whole story is seen from the point of view of Nicky, the aforementioned cheeky daughter, who successfully enters a competition to win a family holiday anywhere in the world. Whilst everyone else finds it hard enough just to get through a normal day, Nicky imagines all sorts of holiday scenarios in every continent, but, being a typical 13 year old, ends up opting for the only place she can think of that the rest of the family will like – a place her parents used to take them when they were younger, and which she knew had a special meaning to them. However, when they get there it’s not quite as they remember it! It’s become a hideous campsite in a godforsaken corner of England where they “enjoy” typical English weather and arguments and bickerings ensue. But despite everything, the holiday brings the family together in a way that none of them could have foreseen. I won’t tell you how; suffice it to say that the second act is at times extremely moving and very tender – enough to bring a tiny tear to Mrs Chrisparkle’s eye.

Terence KeeleyIt’s a very effective set; the Studio doesn’t have a huge acting space, but this tall, shallow backdrop against one wall depicts the many rooms of a busy cluttered house, enabling scenes to take place in different rooms whilst not encroaching on the main acting area. The small band led by Caroline Humphris whack out some engaging tunes and quite complex musical sequences too where all the cast sing some multipart harmonies immensely skilfully.

Bill ChampionThe strength of the show is in its structure. On the one hand, it’s instantly appealing as we all recognise the characters. Even if you don’t personally have one of those six types in your family (and I bet you do), you will still personally know someone closely who fills the bill. The underlying message of the show is that there is nothing new under the sun. As the holiday develops, we realise that Steve and Yvonne had precisely the same kind of ritualistic communion experience that they have scorned Matt for (a Druidic wedding to the unseen Rachel), and that May and her “Ralphie” also had some similar arrangement long in the past. Each generation, whether they realise it or not, becomes the blueprint for the next generation, and if the current family is a bunch of crazies, no doubt so were the forebears. When Matt decides to keep the letter Steve wrote to Yvonne as a teenager, you can see that the future generations are likely to continue that family tradition. It’s a real affirmation of love.

Clare BurtAt the heart of the show is a great performance from Evelyn Hoskins as Nicky, a cheerful, precocious but never caricatured portrayal of a young teenage girl with lots to look forward to. She has a great stage presence, a charming voice and is, in the words of T S Eliot, “the still point in the turning world” (I don’t think I have yet recovered from seeing Cats last week). Alongside her is another excellent performance from Terence Keeley as her older brother Matt, who has the mumbling speech of a disrespectful teenager to a tee, is a frankly terrifying Goth, is very convincing in striding the gap between being a stupid boy and nearly a man; and who absolutely comes into his own at the end as he matures into a proper university student. He has a great singing voice, terrific comic timing and I think he could become A Name To Watch For.

Rachel LumbergBill Champion plays Steve, the much criticised, helpful and wannabe practical dad who is never happier than when making things, despite a total lack of skill, and much to the dismay of his family. Their lives are littered with the evidence of his hopeless attempts – an old bath becomes a spa, night vision head torches are constructed out of old bike lamps; fortunately, Matt puts his foot down early enough to prevent Steve from destroying his new university rooms. It’s a great performance of humour tinged with some pathos. Clare Burt makes an excellent Yvonne, the mother torn between practicality and romantic ideals, and Rachel Lumberg, last seen here in the Full Monty, gives a brilliantly funny performance as Yvonne’s slightly more wayward sister with a new man for every occasion.

Sian PhillipsLast, and certainly not least, comes a superbly controlled performance from Sian Phillips as May, Steve’s mother, which shows a decline into dementia in a most affectionate and gentle way. Losses of memory, misunderstandings and the occasionally bizarre act are contrasted with some insightful speeches of great wit and understanding too. I’ve seen Sian Phillips in many productions over the years (going back to Pal Joey in 1980) and she still has a marvellous presence and gives a great performance. She hasn’t lost her singing voice either.

It’s a reflective, feel good show, which can make you both laugh and cry, and you certainly come away from the theatre feeling a little bit wiser about what makes us all tick. It really ought to have a life after this short Sheffield run!