FringeReview UK 2019
Ann Atkins directs thus brisk very funny revival at Brighton Little Theatre. Steven Adams with Tom Williams and Richard Harris (who provided plumbing too) have created with the cast a breath-taking triptych of kitchens. Beverley Grover designs the soundscape and jingles to suit the kitchen, as well as the lighting, both operated by Claire Ghiaci. Margaret Skeet and Barbara Campbell provide shiveringly accurate period – and class – costumes.
Three Christmases at the three kitchens of three couples who don’t necessarily want to know each other. Ayckbourn’s deceptive 1972 comedy Absurd Person Singular drags a dark undertow, and even darker prophesy. In the key figure of Sidney Hopcroft, Ayckbourn’s created a proto-Thatcherite monster who gets everyone to hop to his tune. Ann Atkins directs thus brisk very funny revival at Brighton Little Theatre with a sure sense of its inexorable power-shifts, winners and losers.
Led by Scott Roberts as the horribly chippy Hopcroft, we’re treated to his and wife Jane’s ascendancy from anxiously making a impression to becoming lords of all they survey: through three successive Christmas Eves. The music changes notably too, the way Beverley Grover designs the soundscape and jingles to suit each kitchen, as well as the lighting, both operated by Claire Ghiaci. As we move socially upwards, the decrepitude does too. Ayckbourn’s already built in a sermon in stoves.
Steven Adams with Tom Williams and Richard Harris (who provides plumbing too) have created with the cast a breath-taking triptych of kitchens and its worth pointing out how fine these sets are. Two fold into each other at the end of Act One; another opens out in the third act to a depth I’ve not seen here before.
First the turquoise and squeaky white of the Hopcrofts’ spotless gadget-gleaming kitchen; the latest in 1970s suburbia, complete with a working back door. Sidney’s a dab hand too at DIY, something that fits with his aspiring property deals and loans for a land-development to build shoddy housing. And there’s that washing machines that irons too his bank manager thinks.
Then the grungy late 1960s-style orange-and-red plus dark wood grease-spattered kitchen of architect Geoffrey Jackson and his wife Eva, neglected over five years. This hinges back from the Hopcrofts’, and its dilapidation (so ironic for a architect) is so good that Jane Hopcroft here actually makes headway with cleaning the once-white oven.
Finally a wholly different deeper layout: the Brewster-Wrights’ haut-bourgeoisie kitchen breakfast room with the Aga and casually modern kitchen stage right is beautifully realised with doors stage left as normal but a glass-fronted French window where the Hopcrofts track down the four others cowering in darkness, hoping they’ll go away. Margaret Skeet and Barbara Campbell provide shiveringly accurate period – and class – costumes.
Roberts is a sovereign actor in portraying that range of hapless through menace with twitches of social anxiety. He registers everything in Hopcroft’s reaction to others: from breezy obliviousness to wheedling to that snarling bully within.
Roberts all Brylcreamed angst bears an underlying confidence, intent on impressing and pressing favours from Mike Skinner’s Ronald Brewster-Wright. At this stage the latter, his bank maanger, can still wield power, and feels far more comfortable socially with Frankie Davison’s Geoffrey Jackson, the thrusting young architect. But things shift even as Josie Durand’s Jane fritters in ever decreasing rain dances – rushing out for Schweppes, rushing through the assembled guests in raincoat and hat pretending to be the delivery boy and finally staying out in the garden. Humiliated here, she’s transformed in a year. Durand enjoys a mobility and fluttering anxiety that notably calms as she gains social confidence and a bustling aplomb.
And Ayckbourn cleverly destabilizes as he establishes. Skinner proves a sovereign ruling-class type with his underlying smut, responding with just the right burr to Davison’s strikingly convincing Geoffrey and his success with women. There’s an offstage teaching couple, an impossible man and sexy wife Lottie, and as Roberts’ Sidney joins in there’s a subtle sense that the middle-class club will have to admit him.
Nikki Dunsford’s Marion Brewster-Wright has one of the two longest journey. Disdainfully serpent-tonged admiring the kitchen but hissing that they must leave, she has a secret that only becomes apparent by the desolate indeed tragic figure she present sin her own home in the third act, looking suddenly twenty years older. Dunsford’s riveting.
It’s in her own kitchen too that Harriet Howard’s Eva comes into her own by trying to kill herself three times, as Geoffrey offers to move out for one sally – he’s already been enjoying several other affairs as we’re suspected from Act One. Plummier-sounding than some Evas, Howard’s role has hitherto been marginal. Here, central to the action she never speaks and only at the end does something empowering. The scene where she attempts suicide first by gassing herself leads to the great heedless line by Jane. ‘I know, you’ve got to clean that oven if it kills you’ which is naturally what Eva’s attempting. Only Jane switches off the gas and cleans it herself. Then Eva tries to hang herself, after being prevented earlier from throwing herself out of the window by her husband before guests arrive. Then baring electric light leads, only it isn’t Eva who gets a shock.
That’s in between Sidney heedlessly picking up each suicide note and turning it over to draw a diagram for her or others of how the U-bend tube needs servicing. His attempts lead to a wetting from his wife, who forgets something vital with that sink. Payback for all that rain in Act One. The physical comedy here almost defies belief, with three characters attempting to improve the collapsing kitchen with the Hopcrofts somehow directing it all. Atkins’ cast here manage everything with supremely professional timing.
But strangely it’s Eva who ends up directing something, a quite magical end to Act Two. Howard’s initially dopey persona transforms and it’s more than a tour-de-farce. It’s deeply moving too.
Act Three finds the Brewster-Wrights’ home with Eva talking to Ronald and seeing to an initially offstage ‘unwell’ Marion. Howard portrays a commandingly confident Eva, one who’s blunt about Marion and tamed the leonine Geoffrey. He’s experienced a disaster that’s been gradually traced over the acts, and she commands he’ll have to sue to Sidney for a job. Davison edges that defeat through his cut-glass distinction, as his very clothes shrug defeat and shrink round him in this act. Like Howard a newcomer, he too makes a memorable debut.
As Marion emerges to give a devastating speech and the Hopcrofts simply ignore the darkness and invade through the French windows – they saw the car – its clear there’s no escape from a game Sidney’ wanted to unleash for three Christmases. Jane too joins him. Though they’re not the only winners.
As we witness the chilling forfeits of circling gamesters we can see circles of hell begin in drawing rooms and end in elections. It’s devastatingly funny, and with vintage Ayckbourn funny is devastating. Vintage BLT too.