Absurd Person Singular, Garrick Theatre, London

The dark side of festive frolics
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The Independent Culture

Sufferers from party fatigue a condition that reaches epidemic proportions at this time of year might think that a revival of Alan Ayckbourn's Absurd Personal Singular is the last thing they need. This is the play that dramatises not just one but three Christmas cocktail parties held in three different homes in consecutive years.

Ah, but here's the clever, tragicomic twist. Instead of plunging you in the midst of the seasonal hobnobbing, the play positions itself in the wings of the drama. As characters take refuge from the party, or neurotically prepare for it, or try to cut themselves off from it, the kitchen is where the real emotional action goes on.

Behind-the-scenes is the scene. Beginning in the obsessively clean and terminally shipshape quarters of a pair of despised but inexorably rising social misfits (David Bamber and Jane Horrocks), the play proceeds to the slatternly, stripped-pine domestic chaos of a raffish, philandering architect and his suicidal wife (John Gordon Sinclair and Lia Williams), and finally fetches up in the desolate, freezing, loveless, if Gothic-arched, kitchen of the emotionally baffled bank manager and his imperious, neglected drunk of a wife (David Horowitz and Jenny Seagrove).

Yes, Alan Strachan's enjoyable, Seventies-clad, niftily orchestrated production boasts a top-flight cast, and the performances here are skilled, but without catching the darkness and depth brought out by a superb mid-1980s television version with, among others, Nicky Henson (who was in the first-night audience), Maureen Lipman and Prunella Scales.

It might seem odd to favour a small- screen account because Absurd Person Singular is, in some ways, a quintessentially theatrical beast. Off-camera does not have the same tightly symbiotic relationship with on-camera that offstage has with onstage, and given Aykbourn's very amusing deployment of what we don't see (for example, the recurring, mirth-murderingly jolly and permanently out-of-view couple Dick and Lottie Potter), the concept of offstage matters a lot to this play. But the intimacy of the TV version was able to mask those moments, overt in the long-shot of proscenium-arch theatre, where Ayckbourn sacrifices profundity for ingenious patterning.

The plays of this dramatist are not ageing well. This one has, it's true, feminist sympathies, and sides with the badly treated wives whose various suicide attempts and descents into alcohol are barely noticed or deliberately blanked out by their spouses. And the best bits are the sequences where cunning tricks with an old convention reveal something new and true about the misogynistic, proto-Thatcherite zeitgeist.

Take the routine where the wife of the socially climbing property developer pops out in the pouring rain to get more tonic water, and is left getting drenched in the garden rather than cause embarrassment to her spouse's prospects. In her mack and sou'wester, she's mistaken by the bank manager for a tradesman who has improperly used the front door.

On the other hand, the celebrated scene in which the repeated suicide attempts of the architect's wife are thwarted by her cheerfully uncomprehending guests comes over as mechanical and with an untrue pay-off. Would someone who desperately wanted to top themselves be so easily pacified into gurgling babyhood by a few gulps of gin? The potentially brilliant idea of having the bank manager reveal a failed first marriage merely makes you feel that Ayckbourn has his thumbs on the scales when suggesting that the character has learnt nothing about women through this experience. And why are the upwardly mobile couple treated so externally in contrast to the rest? The pushy sister-in-law in Chekhov's Three Sisters is at least allowed the benefit of authorial ambivalence. The nouveau-riche duo in Absurd Person Singular move onward and upward to success and psychological simplification.



To 22 March (0870 040 0046)

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