Review: Uneasy laughs but great performances in Ayckbourn classic on Coventry stage

Nick Le Mesurier reviews Absurd Person Singular at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

Rosanna Miles as Marion, Graham O'Mara as Ronald Brewster-Wright, Helen Keeley as Eva Jackson in Absurd Person Singular
Rosanna Miles as Marion, Graham O'Mara as Ronald Brewster-Wright, Helen Keeley as Eva Jackson in Absurd Person Singular

Alan Ayckbourn’s classic play, Absurd Person Singular, is a complicated, one might say contradictory beast. Part farce, part social commentary, part harrowing portrayal of mental illness, it doesn’t sit comfortably anywhere. It is very funny, but it is also very cruel.

Three couples meet for drinks at each other’s homes on three successive Christmas Eves. They’re not exactly friends but have business interests in common. Sidney Hopcraft (Paul Sandys) is a small-time entrepreneur, on the up. Geoffrey Jackson (John Dorney) is an architect struggling with a dodgy client, and Ronald Brewster-Wright is a banker, connected financially to them both. Their wives are housewives (this is 1972), subordinate to their husbands with no escape but anti-depressants and thoughts of suicide in the case of Eva Jackson (Helen Keeley), or alcohol in that of Marion Brewster-Wright (Rosanna Miles) or neurotic cleaning Jane Hopcraft (Felicity Houlbrooke). As the years progress their fortunes change – the professional classes fall while the more working-class characters rise. Behind it all are some dodgy property deals.

It is the fate of the wives that gives this play its emotional punch. There are some very funny scenes, such as the game of forfeits that they all play on the final evening, or the men’s hapless attempts at DIY in the second act. But while these things are going on the women are suffering. Eva determinedly tries to end her life while her kitchen is taken apart by her guests. Marion has become an alcoholic by act three, soaked in self-pity and bitter frustration. Only Jane seems to thrive throughout in this mad, vicious world of suburban social climbing, but that is by blanking out everything in a haze of cleaning fluid.

The acting throughout this production is superb, though the direction imposed some rather long pauses between scenes in act one, which held up the drama a little. The play has enjoyed long runs on Broadway and the West End, but I couldn’t help feeling that its humour and its acute social commentary were done at the expense of some very vulnerable characters. The audience laughed out loud and often at the slapstick, which was brilliantly done, but I left at the end with the uneasy feeling I was being asked to laugh particularly at the women who were being damaged by the ignorance, to put it kindly, of their menfolk. The play is in many ways of its time, and sensibilities may have changed; lets us hope we’ve moved on a bit.

* The play runs till 26 June. Visit www.belgrade.co.uk to book.