Culture: Why Ayckbourn's plays have become absurd

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The Independent Online

Is Alan Ayckbourn still capable of putting bums on seats? Last Tuesday saw the West End opening of Absurd Person Singular, his 1972 comedy about three couples whose marriages are in varying states of disarray. It has an excellent cast (Jane Horrocks, John Gordon Sinclair, Jenny Seagrove, David Bamber, Lia Williams and David Horovitch), but will that be enough to guarantee success? Or is Ayckbourn's 40-year run as Britain's most-performed living playwright set to end?

There's no doubt that Absurd Person Singularis extremely dated. In one scene, the character played by John Gordon Sinclair tells his wife that he's leaving her for another woman, but expresses the hope that they can still have sex from time to time. She says nothing in response and he becomes so infuriated that he threatens to "take a swing" at her. In a contemporary play, such behaviour would put this character completely beyond the pale it would be a way for the dramatist to convey that he's a monster but Ayckbourn stops short of this. The husband is not supposed to be sympathetic, but Ayckbourn expects us to be pleased for his wife when, in the following scene, they're reconciled. So much for discouraging women from remaining in abusive relationships.

To get around problems such as this, the director has decided to set the play in the decade in which it was written, but that is only a partial solution. There's a more fundamental issue here: Ayckbourn's style of comedy is hopelessly out of date, too. Absurd Person Singular is no door-slamming farce, but a large percentage of the gags are of the slapstick variety.

The problem isn't that physical comedy has ceased to be funny just look at There's Something About Mary but that it no longer works on stage. It is simply too unrealistic. For instance, there's a scene in which the character played by Horovitch is electrocuted while trying to fix a broken light fitting. He does his best to fizz and pop authentically, but no amount of artistry on his part can make it look convincing.

In the 1970s, when Absurd Person Singular ran on Broadway for 591 performances, audiences were used to things not looking real on stage and willing to accept it. Today, expectations have been raised by the widespread use of special effects in film and TV. Unless an illusion is seamless, they'll be too busy noticing its shortcomings for the scene to achieve its dramatic effect.

I enjoyed Absurd Person Singular and hope it's a hit. But I suspect that Ayckbourn's time has passed.