Are all 8-year-olds as terrifyingly alert to their elders’ childish behavior as the little girl in Alan Ayckbourn’s achingly funny new play, “My Wonderful Day?” Possibly. But it’s hard to imagine a more hilarious or endearing performance of such a child than the one given by 28-year-old Ayesha Antoine in this sublime production, directed by the playwright, which had its British premiere at his resident Stephen Joseph Theater in Scarborough. If there’s a lesson to be learned from this domestic comedy of manners, it’s that notebooks and writing implements are lethal weapons in the hands of observant children.
A week shy of her 9th birthday, Winnie Barnstairs (Antoine) gets a one-day education in grownup misbehavior when her very pregnant mother, Laverne (Petra Letang), takes the girl on her housecleaning job at the home of a smugly egocentric TV personality.
Winnie meekly obeys her mother’s directive to sit herself in a corner (“quiet as a mouse”), do her homework, and practice her French. But even in mouse-mode — shoulders curved into her chest, feet tucked under, nose bent over her notebook — this intelligent and perceptive child is keenly aware of the bad language and bizarre behavior of the adults who swarm about the apartment without actually noticing her.
Unaware that Winnie (who really is dutifully practicing her French) speaks English, Kevin Tate (the loathesome master of the household in Terence Booth’s hilariously heartless perf) sees no need to contain himself. Swearing vigorously at the wife who has left him after sabotaging a costly TV project, he blatantly seduces his secretary and drives his best friend to distraction — all in full view of the bug-eyed little girl.
In the midst of this madness, Laverne goes into labor, leaving Winnie in the temporary custody of Kevin and company, who ineptly try to parent the little girl by making her an accomplice to their own neurotic needs and childish behavior.
Kevin’s friend Josh (the saddest of sad sacks in Paul Kemp’s perf) breaks down in tears. Girlfriend Tiffany (sweeter than you’d think, in Ruth Gibson’s capable hands) innocently introduces the little girl to corporate porn. Winnie’s education is complete when wife Paula (Alexandra Mathie plays this fury to perfection) returns to take charge.
All of this goes into the notebook where Winnie is writing her school report on “My Wonderful Day.”
It’s hard to say which part of her anatomy Antoine uses best in registering the events she records. It could be the eyes, rounded in horror at the language these people use, or possibly the eyebrows, which go up like flags at the absurd lies they tell. Or the legs, pumping up and down in boredom — or sheer existential anguish.
We already know Winnie is wise beyond her years from the way she watches over her mother. In Letang’s big-hearted performance, Laverne lacks nothing in maternal warmth. But as an abandoned wife with two children she can’t support, her solution to their predicament — to make a mad dash for her Martinique homeland — is more a desperate dream than a practical plan.
Knowing this better than Laverne, Winnie has little faith in her mother’s unrealistic promises. (“Sometimes you can’t keep them,” she sensibly observes.) Which makes her the realist in this family.
Like all realists, Winnie believes what she sees with her very own eyes. But Winnie turns out to be her mother’s daughter, after all. For all her intelligence and awareness, there’s a kindness to her that makes her protective of all the crazy adults who act out in her presence. We can love her all we want — but we don’t deserve her.