Absurd Person Singular @ Garrick Theatre, London

cast list
Jane Horrocks
Jenny Seagrove
John Gordon Sinclair
David Horovitch
David Bamber
Lia Williams

directed by
Alan Strachan
After a five-year absence from the West End, Alan Ayckbourn makes a welcome return with arguably his finest work.

Absurd Person Singular, first staged in 1972, is a bleakly funny portrait of middle-class snobbery and failed relationships set at Christmas time. A top-notch cast in Alan Strachan’s well-balanced production bring out beautifully both the humour and the pathos of the play, which makes a refreshing alternative to glib Yuletide cheeriness.

The action occurs in three successive Christmas Eve parties in the houses of three dysfunctional couples, during which we discover how their personal and business fortunes fluctuate over the years. In Act I we see the upwardly mobile couple Jane, an obsessive compulsive cleaner, and her anal retentive shopkeeper husband Sidney deferentially hosting a drinks party for their well-to-do guests. Act II focuses on womanizing architect Geoffrey and his depressive pill-popping wife Eva, while the final act takes place in the home of boring banker Ronald and his posh alcoholic wife Marion.

In typically ingenious Ayckbourn fashion, we just experience the parties as noises off, as the drama all happens in the kitchens. Michael Pavelka’s meticulously detailed design shows how the different lifestyles and personalities of the couples are expressed in their home environment: Sidney and Jane’s kitchen is cheap but spotless and in full functioning order, Geoffrey and Eva’s is more bohemian but a filthy mess, and Geoffrey and Marion’s mock-Tudor Aga affair looks more like a page from Country Life than a family kitchen.

< P>Ayckbourn, of course, is a master craftsman (helped no doubt by having served his apprenticeship in every area of stagecraft, from sound technician to prop maker, not to mention acting, before becoming a playwright), and Absurd Person Singular is as tightly constructed as a draught-free house. Each act starts off relatively quietly but becomes progressively more farcical as the characters’ plight becomes more desperate, in this awkward comedy of private fears in public places.

There are excruciatingly funny episodes in each act: Jane ends up locked out of her own house in the pouring rain because she is too embarrassed to admit she’s going out to buy more tonic water; no one notices when Eva tries to kill herself in several different ways because they are fixing her kitchen equipment; and Sidney and Jane enter the side door to find the others on the floor hiding from them in the dark. Ayckbourn reveals the absurdity of these self-obsessed people anxious to avoid social embarrassment at all costs.

Strachan makes sure that his cast bring out the subtlety in the characterization rather than reduce it to caricature, with even small changes in dress and hairstyle indicating how the characters develop. Jane Horrocks shows Jane changing from anxious inhibition to gushing cheerfulness, while David Bamber’s Sidney moves from egregious grocer to power-wielding property developer, literally making the others dance to his tune. John Gordon Sinclair’s laddish Geoffrey is forced into sober restraint as his career slides and Lia Williams shows the neurotic Eva finding a pragmatic confidence. David Horovitch’s Ronald remains eternally unaware, but Jenny Seagrove’s outstanding performance captures both the hilarity and poignancy in Marion’s shift from upper-middle-class condescension to pathetic neediness.

In this wonderfully entertaining black comedy the forced merriment of the festive season acts as an ironic counterpoint to the misery of the protagonists. If you want to see a Christmas show which is neither facile nor sentimental, go see this one.

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