Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

ronald first aid 

Phil Shaw's Ronald finds first aid can be worse than the accident as he is treated by Stuart Goodwin's Sydney and Sarah Stanley's Marion

 Absurd Person Singular

Sutton Arts Theatre


Alan Ayckbourn’s plays always remind me of the hall of mirrors we used to get at fairgrounds and Blackpool’s House of Fun. You are looking at a reflection of the real world, a world full of people we recognise, except the image is distorted, exaggerated, a twist here, a bend there.

And that is what you get in this splendid production, three couples, three Christmas Eves, three kitchens and three scenarios, a sort of three card trick where the winner changes with every deal.

Set in the 1970s with maxi length dresses and a penchant for drinking bitter lemon, we start with Sydney and Jane nervously awaiting the arrival of guests for a Christmas Eve cocktail party, including two couples they see as being above them in the social pecking order. The pair have a hardware shop but want more, at least Sydney does, he is a control freak looking to impress with a collection of party games at the ready if the evening flags; Jane, who escapes from life by cleaning and polishing anything that doesn’t move, is a loyal wife, eager to please and support Sydney’s ambition, whatever it is.

It is a lovely performance from Stuart Goodwin as the none too bright, somewhat annoyingly cheerful Sydney and Michelle Dawes as the not much brighter, bending over backwards to please him, Jane. Sydney can exude lovey dovey charm in a patronising way but there is a hard edge behind it. He is in charge and wants Jane to know it, and he can flare into a rage if things are not going his way or Jane does something he thinks could show him in a bad light.

syd and Jane

Sydney, Stuart Goodwin, in a moment of panic and despair with wife Jane, Michelle Dawes

First guests up are old friends Dick and Lottie, a pair of teachers who we never see but hear much about. Dick is the life and soul of any party, life and souling it to death by all accounts, and Lottie . . . well more of her later.

Then come Ronald and Marion, the aging bank manager and his younger, second wife. Ronald played with a lovely dry wit by Phil Shaw, has a sort of other worldly air, appreciating the more refined things in life, invited, one suspects because Sydney is after a loan to buy and develop the building next to his shop.

Marion, a delightful portrayal by Sarah Stanley, is a snob with barely hidden contempt for Sydney and Jane and their down market house, damning with faint praise, wanting to leave as soon as she can and complaining about the strength of the drinks on offer until she finally is given a G&T she approves of . . . more of a G, actually, as it has foregone the inclusion of any T. The seeds of a looming problem perhaps.

Finally, we have Geoffrey and Eva. Geoffrey, played as a fully paid up member of the Grand Order of Male Chauvinist Pigs by Richard Clarke, is the town’s star architect, a valued bank customer admired a little by Ronald and possibly useful to Sydney if the loan is approved. He keeps his wife Eva so far under his thumb she can hardly be seen and makes no attempt to hide his womanising and lecherous ways, happily talking about Lotty’s legs – remember her – and her pert little derrière.

Ronald and Geoff

Ronald is given a lesson on the roles of women . . . and Lotty's bottom . . . by Richard Clarke's Geoffrey

He even boasts about the somewhat pervy way he is managing to admire her legs and thighs under her long dress. Sort of upskirting without a camera. To him women are sexual objects, a sort of extramarital game of trivial pursuit. As for wives? They are mere chattels who do as they are told and accept their lot, and, more importantly, their husband’s lot in life.

Eva, a memorable performance from Lynette Coffey, is quietly sarcastic at the first party, popping anti-depressants to keep herself sane, a prescription that seems to be only just managing to hold everything more or less together.  

The pair have a dog, George, the size of horse, which, if nothing else, gives them another excuse to argue and an added dimension for what is to come . . .

Move on a year and we are at a party with Eva and Geoffrey, or rather just Geoffrey, as Eva is way out of it. Coffey never says a word but steals the scene in her slovenly, depressed state, clad in nightdress and dressing gown, desperately trying to top herself with all around her unwittingly throwing away her suicide notes, which she has to keep rewriting, while at the same time keeping her alive by thwarting her suicide attempts purely by accident – and cleaning her oven, unblocking her sink and changing her light fittings at the same time. Oh, and no one can leave the kitchen as an angry George is waiting to pounce on anyone who opens the door.

Sydney, by the way, is now a property developer, quite successful by all accounts, which has moved him  and the size of his account up the pecking order with Ronald but not so much with Geoffrey who openly dismisses his small developments, seeing them as way below his exulted status.

Still it all ends on a festive(ish) note – sort of.

In the other couples the men have taken control. Ronald goes with the flow, just drifting along as the world passes by. He openly admits to knowing nothing about women, certainly doesn’t understand Marion, and still has no idea why his first wife left him – a telling fact that probably explains at least a little of the cause.

So, another year, another Christmas Eve and how the tables have turned as we drift along to Ronald’s kitchen in his unheated house. This time there is no party. Eva has called in to see how bed ridden Marion is faring and is waiting for Geoffrey to dutifully pick her up. He does what he is told these days.

His standing has hit rock bottom – along with the shopping centre he designed. Apparently buildings that fall down do not look good on an architect’s CV, and with Geoffrey a star no more, a now recovered Eva has taken charge. Ronald, meanwhile is on his uppers, with no heating and no rush, and, you suspect, no cash, to get it repaired, Marion’s problem is now there for all to see among the empties and as for Sydney and Jane . . . they are property magnates these days. They are the top dogs now, successful, and call in on their way home from a society party, a party, by implication, to which the others were not invited.


Lynnette Coffey as the mentally dodgy Eva in her year of festive anti-depressants

The sycophancy of past years has drifted into sadism as they call the shots as one of the bank’s biggest customers and the only hope of employment for an architectural pariah.

It is a play full of laughs and funny moments, with some classic lines such as Marion’s apartheid washing machine or Geoffrey seeing himself as a “sexual flying Dutchman”, but, as in much of Ayckbourn’s work, there is a bleakness, a dark undercurrent; we are laughing at people’s inadequacies, their failings, their misery . . . and perhaps even our own.

The play dates back to 1972 but apart from a couple of references – who drink’s bitter lemon these days for example? – it could have been written today. Ayckbourn populates his plays with people or at least traits we recognise among our own circles.

There is always a feeling, even if faint at times, of familiarity, of situations we might have experienced or at the very least could have imagined and the six actors keep their characters on the frightening side of just about normal.

There is not a weak link between them, and their change in fortunes is beautifully developed as we chronicle the rise of Sydney and Jane, the fall of Geoffrey and empowerment of Eva, and the benign meandering of Ronald as Marion steadily marinades herself with gin. The changes are gradual, the characters subtly changing with each Christmas.

There are some lovely touches and gestures and Marion’s final scene is a real acting delight as she rises from her bed for a glass of Christmas cheer with friends, cheering you suspect which started several festive seasons ago, and echoes throughout the year.

We end as we began – a third Christmas Eve in a third kitchen but that is where the similarity has ended in a world that has changed for our three couples thanks to six superb performances from a cast who bring the disparate characters to sparkling life.

And a word too for stage manager Allan Lane and stage director, and designer, Paul Wescott along with the six strong stage crew. If you don’t know Sutton Arts Theatre it is a stage with no wings and no flies but despite that has a reputation for excellent sets, and here they have three. Three acts and three completely different sets, three kitchens in different 1970’s styles – complete with working taps! A logistical triumph.

Wanda Harris and Chris McHugh are spot on with Steve Baker’s sound design with rain and George’s growls on cue as doors open and the action and dialogue flows at a lovely pace.

The result is an entertaining and satisfying evening of first class theatre, showing Ayckbourn at its best. Directed by Barrie Atchison, Absurd Person Singular runs to 08-02-20.

Roger Clarke


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