I grew up in the university town of Cambridge, where amateur dramatics were ten a penny. In studying Romeo and Juliet at sixth form college, I managed to see at least three different versions of the play in the space of as many months. And trust me, the quality varies some.
So, when you decide to see any amateur dramatic performance, I’m more aware than anyone that you have to take the view that you might just get what you pay for.
However, Islesburgh Drama Group’s recent production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular, produced and directed by Morag Mouat, packed far more punch than anyone will have paid (or bargained) for. At once hysterically funny and saddeningly sobering, this most recent offering from IDG has proven once more that, in the rankings of community theatre and amateur dramatics, they are a force to be reckoned with.
The lights came up to reveal something of a kitchen – a little makeshift in appearance, but adequate enough to display the obsessive activities of the nervous Jane Hopcroft (played by Mandy Phillips) and her bumblingly oblivious spouse Sidney (played by David Smith). Act One, referred to as ‘Last Christmas’, set the characters out perfectly.
Nervous about the arrival of a series of Christmas Eve guests, Jane polished and scrubbed her way through the scene until she was called upon to fix drinks. Being short on tonic, she donned her husband’s jacket, hat and boots to sneak out of the back door to buy drinks. It was only on her return that what seemed to be a play I might feel fairly ambivalent about came into its own.
The glass pane in the back door allowed for much comedic action to ensue as Jane returned at it to a variety of characters who, all fairly obnoxious in their own ways, had gathered in the kitchen. Dripping wet from poor weather and dressed hilariously in clothes far too big for her, Jane brought the light relief to what was otherwise quite a dry scene. Set in a time where ‘keeping up appearances’ was singularly very important, the hilarity was not wasted on the audience. Her husband’s shocked disapproval at her antics also served as a dry reminder of this.
IDG went to some pains in their promotion of this show to pose questions, following their November performance of ‘Blue Stockings’, about how far women had come between the 1890s and the 1970s. The answer was, of course, maybe not as far as we would all like to think.
Following Phillips’ amusing portrayal of a frantic and obsessed housewife, it was, as they say, all uphill from there.
Act Two forwarded the action to a new scene – ‘This Christmas – which, while taking the same shape as Jane and Sydney’s kitchen became the small apartment belonging to Eva and Geoffrey Jackson.
This couple, previously introduced to us by Donna-Marie Leask and Martin Summers as a deeply unhappy wife with a philandering husband were, by the very nature of Ayckbourn’s writings, presented with a set of personal problems as characters and significant challenges as actors.
Geoffrey’s near-monologue, where he gave every good appearance of trying to communicate with his wife, only served as reminder that he really didn’t want to. The self-absorption was evident in Summers’ portrayal of a frustrated, but not caring, husband. Ayckbourn’s writing demanded a lengthy, uninterrupted spiel which was well-sustained.
Eva had no words throughout the duration of the scene (other than a sombre rendition of ‘On the first day of Christmas’ at the close of the Act) and it was only the tremendous acting – and reacting – on the part of Leask that carried the entire scene. Her eye rolling, sighing, furious indignation and resignation led to a brilliant performance. She was entirely riveting to watch as the chaotic activity that ensued around her took place. While the audience laughed until they cried, there was at the heart of it a deeply sobering message. Between Jane scrubbing up the oven, Sydney fixing the kitchen sink and Ronald Brewster-Wright (played by Cameron Mackenzie) endeavouring to rectify an electrical issue, the activity was almost slapstick – and hilariously so. Stephenie Pagulyan, as Ronald’s wife Marion, hung around in the background making unhelpful after unhelpful remark – no doubt half-cut as her drinking problem became increasingly apparent.
A further stand-out moment was delivered by the up-to-this-point-entirely-serious Ronald. Mackenzie’s character, in many ways fairly one-dimensional, was played perfectly. Just when you thought he was something of a limp and lifeless character, a mistake leading to a fairly serious electrical shock, delivered an hilarious performance as poor Ronald shook himself away from death as his wife, sloshing a drink around in the background, remarked that he better hadn’t ruin Christmas!
However, it also became apparent that through all of this Eva was attempting suicide, and it was in those moments of hilarity that the audience also felt the profound sadness at what was going on.
Ayckbourn’s portrayal of a set of people, unlikely companions on all fronts, who are essentially oblivious to how the others suffer and struggle is a stark reminder of how living an insular life, focussed entirely on self, can cause us to miss the hard places people can find themselves in.
By the start of Act Three, I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to laugh or cry.
As the lights came up on the home of Ronald, a further year later, the sad reality of how his relationship was deteriorating with his wife became apparent. Still oblivious, Ronald sat reading inappropriate books found under his son’s mattress while his alcoholic wife lay upstairs. A few moments lacked reality, however – Eva’s sudden improvement from suicidal, down-trodden wife to sparklingly well-presented helpful friend was perplexing. However, in fairness this is perhaps more a criticism of Ayckbourn’s writing than it is of IDG’s production. This was a point I struggled to get past as it was not at all obvious what might have led, in the space of a year, to such an exceptional recovery. That said, the couple remained entirely dysfunctional even if Eva did appear to have gained an upper hand over her stray husband.
After a slow start, Act Three once more progressed into hilarity and difficult reality as all the characters found themselves together once more. Jane and Sydney, still oblivious, showed up to play party games as Eva and Geoffrey struggled through their marital differences and financial problems, against the backdrop of the indifferent Ronald and drunk Marion.
The curtains closed to an audience in laughter, completed tickled by the absurdity of the entire scene.
In honesty, it has been a long time since I watched something so entertaining. For me, the best performances are always the ones that suspend you between the excesses of emotion and Absurd Person Singular didn’t fail to deliver.
Mouat’s production brought out the best in a brilliant cast who were able to deliver witty, frustrating and terribly sad characters all at once. Was the dialogue always slick? No. There were some lengthy and demanding monologues and dialogues. Did it actually matter? Well, no.
While the set and costumes perfectly impressed a sense of when the play took place, the messages are essentially timeless. They are an important reminder of life’s tragic truths when we fail to recognise the darkness lurking in the corners.