January 11, 2003: Ayckbourn, Damsels in Distress

Damsels in Distress, a trilogy by Alan Ayckbourn. 11:30 am: Flat Spin; 3:30 pm: Game-Plan; 7:30 pm. Role Play. A transfer from Ayckbourn’s home theatre, the Stephen Joseph Theatre, in Scarborough. Three plays quite unrelated in plot and character, performed on a single set — an apartment in Docklands — by the same seven actors, four women and three men.

Tom Stoppard’s first and only trilogy for the theatre, The Coast of Utopia, closed here last November after a run at the National, but Ayckbourn’s plays include not only a trilogy of thirty years ago, The Norman Conquests, but other plays linked in various ways and still others that bend and stretch the ordinary limits and conventions of the theatre in ways no other English dramatist has attempted to do. He has, according to the program, written more than sixty plays. I have seen fewer than ten, I think. The one that stays best in mind is A Chorus of Disapproval, about a provincial amateur company rehearsing and performing The Beggar’s Opera: one of his most resonant and disturbing plays. The surest thing about going to see an Ayckbourn play is that you have little if any idea what is in store for you — well, you do and you don’t. The secret of Ayckbourn’s success as a dramatist (I venture to say) is that he deftly combines an action full of surprises with an “angle” on the particularities of the mise en scène, an angle so well identified that it becomes a kind of ruling mechanism — something, whatever it may be, that unifies the entire enterprise and gives the constantly modulating linking of character and action a kind of analogical dimension. It is not far from the truth to say that Alan Ayckbourn is the John Fletcher of the late twentieth-century theatre. Fletcher, the late contemporary of Shakespeare and co-author with him of at least one play, had the knack of engaging his audience by constantly blurring the line between tragedy and comedy, thus producing a play that could justifiably be seen — be expected — to go either way. Even though Ayckbourn consistently writes comedy, he never pins his major characters to the wall by engraving their ethical, moral, or libidinal propensities in stone. They always have the capacity to break free of the chains of dramatic decorum that bind such characters in the hands of other, less enter­prising playwrights. They are slippery beings, these characters, and we never know where they may end up anymore than they know themselves. Another way to explain this is to say that Ayckbourn is extremely wary of giving his aud­iences an open door into omniscience. He never lets them know in advance what another dramatist — Shakespeare is the time-honored exemplar of this friendly, complimentary strategy — takes care to tell them. Othello is perhaps the chief example of a play in which no character has effective foreknowledge; only the audience knows of Iago’s profound disaffection and of his consequent plot to destroy the Moor; we are allowed to watch the process, in fascination and horror, and meanwhile are helpless to intervene. Fletcher, on the other hand, renders his action and characters opaque with respect to the audience. And so, after all, does Ayckbourn.

The three plays that comprise this current trio have a cast in which women outnumber men four to three, and it is the women who seem to be in constant trouble. The first play, Flat Spin, is about a young actress who stumbles onto the scene of a drug bust; the second, Game Plan, concerns a schoolgirl who attempts to help her stranded mother by going into prostitution via the Internet and makes a botch of it; and the third, Role Play, is about a couple about to announce their engagement to their parents at a dinner in their flat when they are intruded upon by a gunman’s sexy moll and the gangster accomplice assigned to “protect” her.

All these situations yield interesting and unpredictable results. I suspect some critics criticize Ayckbourn for arbitrary, implausible, or inadequately prepared terms of plot. To do so is to miss what Ayckbourn’s comedy is really all about. The rhetoric of these plays is one that turns on the fundamental principle of keeping them, the audience, guessing. If this involves venturing into the absurd, or at least into the highly unlikely, so be it. More important is to give the actor the opportunity to perform the turn, the change, toward something unfore­seen. Ayckbourn’s characters are not “complex” in the way that the characters of Stoppard, Hare, Hampton, or other contemporary dramatists’ characters are. Instead they are opaque — because they are creatures of an unadvertised action that may go one way or another. On the one hand, they seem simple enough; on the other, we cannot predict what they may do if put under sufficient duress. And they are invariably put under strain by the unpredictable turns — meander­ings is definitely not the word — of the action into which they are, willy-nilly, drawn.

Fletcher’s plays, scholars seem to have decided, should be called tragicom­edies. The genre in which Ayckbourn writes might be called farcical comedy, though it is sometimes tinged with grey, clouded over by the less flattering side of human nature. So his characters sometimes find opportunity to play out an extended moment of physical comedy, even as they find themselves bested (momentarily, at least) by the hostile world into which they have been summar­ily thrust. But the moment is the moment, nonetheless, and the actor gets to play it for all it’s worth, in familiar, show-stopping accents.

These are, many of them, young actors. Robert Austin seems the only one over fifty, though Beth Tuckey and Jacqueline King may also hover around that age. The others are young and relatively inexperienced — but all are now well used to acting together, in these three plays. They are easy in their roles and fill them expertly well. Ayckbourn remarks in his program note that he is trying to get at the true circumstances of the old, traditional repertory company, in which a constantly present troupe of actors fit themselves into various roles in various plays as occasion requires. Seeing all three plays in a marathon playgoing exper­ience beginning at 11:30 this morning and ending at 9:45 tonight, I found I was having an experience comparable to the experiences of audiences in Garrick’s time (and not so much in Irving’s time), of watching a given amalgam of actors take on a series of roles well-suited to them but quite varied in themselves. Such pleasures, in this day of one-off casting of a play that runs until it is taken off, are rare.

A special pleasure came from seeing Allison Pargeter in her three charac­ters: Rosie Seymore in Flat Spin — she is the out-of-work actress who gets em­broiled in the drug bust; Kelly Butcher in Game Plan, a geeky sort of schoolgirl who gets inveigled into being a “maid” for her school chum, whose bright idea it is to go into prostitution to shore up the family finances; and Paige Petite in Role Play, the gun moll, damaged and somewhat incoherent, who falls — literally, off the upstairs balcony — into the scene of an engagement dinner, becomes a prisoner there, and ends up taking the fiancé, at his begging request, away and out of a disastrously conventional marriage prospect. Hers were the three most well-differentiated characters of the day. Her body language was articulate and clear, her timing superb, and the pathos of a troubled woman, or girl, that she was able to register was authentic and winning without becoming in the slightest bit maudlin. She could play Audrey in As You Like It right now; in fifteen or twenty years she’ll be able to handle Lady Macbeth or Volumnia. A total pleasure to watch, even though her gun-moll’s accent was at times nearly impenetrable, as an American woman whom I overheard was saying: “She’s hard.”


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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