×

Absurd Person Singular

The most famous sequence from Hitchcock's "Torn Curtain" is the silent scene in which Paul Newman takes several minutes to kill an East German spy. That's nothing compared with playwright Alan Ayckbourn's audacity in "Absurd Person Singular."

With:
Jane - Jane Horrocks Sidney - David Bamber Ronald - David Horovitch Marion - Jenny Seagrove Eva - Lia Williams Geoffrey - John Gordon Sinclair

The most famous sequence from Hitchcock’s “Torn Curtain” is the silent scene in which Paul Newman takes several minutes to kill an East German spy. That’s nothing compared with playwright Alan Ayckbourn’s audacity in “Absurd Person Singular.” Defeated wife Eva spends the entirety of the second act not only not speaking, but trying and failing to commit suicide — and keeping the audience laughing throughout. That Alan Strachan’s revival of this 1972 classic largely pulls that off is proof of the production’s strength, but miscasting in several roles makes for a bumpy ride.

Ayckbourn is fond of setting himself structural challenges. Part of the pleasure of watching this play is the neat legibility of what could be a cumbersome device — that of watching the fall and rise of three couples in three different kitchens on three successive Christmas Eves.

This is class struggle as comedy. The first act takes place in the new kitchen Sidney Hopcroft (David Bamber) has built for his cleanliness-obsessed, frightened mouse wife, Jane (Jane Horrocks). In Horrocks’ perpetually rubber-gloved hands, Jane is a squealing ninny in fluffy slippers, terrified at having to host a Christmas drinks party for Sidney’s smart bank manager, Ronald Brewster-Mason (David Horovitch), and his snob of a wife, Marion (Jenny Seagrove), plus local architect Geoffrey (John Gordon Sinclair) and his wife Eva (Lia Williams).

Accidentally locked out of her own house, Horrocks wins her best laughs via frantic miming — rain-sodden and gesticulating wildly through the glass backdoor. But although her absence from the party is a social disaster, Sidney gets the loan from Ronald for a cheap land deal on which to build a development of shops.

In the middle year, Geoffrey (nicely smug Sinclair’s self-serving manner is as smooth as his neatly flared ’70s jeans) is busy sneering at the Hopcrofts’ shoddy development, having affairs and ignoring his wife. Eva, meanwhile, is dumbfounded both by Geoffrey and her entire life. With the Hopcrofts and Brewster-Masons arriving for Christmas drinks, Eva faces the squalor of her own kitchen and tries every possible escape route — death leap, knifing, gas, poison and hanging — only to be repeatedly saved when the guests misread her as accident-prone.

It’s that gap between the outlandishness of everyone’s actions and the deep core of Eva’s pain that’s so absurdly funny.

Yet this production’s most sustained laughter occurs in the final-act farce sequence, where everyone tries to pretend they’re not at home for fear of having to entertain the nouveau riche nightmare Hopcrofts, who have ascended the social ladder while everyone else is staring down disappointment and defeat.

What makes that scene work is not just Ayckbourn’s faultless construction, but the fact that no one actor stands out — everyone is working together like a well-oiled machine. Elsewhere, however, most of the cast are working too hard for the simple reason that every one of them is at least a decade older than in previous productions.

 That shift in age removes the effervescence of youth and adds a sour tone. Being the wrong side of 50 makes nonsense of Ronald and Marion having young children. And the longevity of their marriage contradicts the emotions they express.

Similarly, Marion’s speech about suddenly realizing she’s old is sad and funny coming from the mouth of a woman in her 30s — as was Sheila Hancock in the original West End production. With a much older woman, it seems merely deluded. Seagrove is a funny upper-class drunk, but her performance lacks depth.

Similarly, Bamber is too old to be playing a character set up as a young, unthinking, money-grabber. He’s so over-emphatic — standing with Chaplinesque feet turned out, clinging neurotically onto words — that his relationship with the Horrocks doesn’t make emotional sense and the comedy rhythm grows fitful.

The strongest performance is the least effortful. Horovitch quietly and unobtrusively steals the show by refusing to play the comedy. He touches on his character’s pompousness with affecting subtlety and, given a line such as “tricky things, these soda siphons,” plays it with compassion toward his hostess rather than as an actor in search of a laugh.

Michael Pavelka’s ’70s sets are frankly wobbly. Strachan’s direction overcomes that and ensures that the play’s essential balance — the characters’ absurdly funny behavior versus their bitterly sad core — is maintained. But the over-eager playing means that Ayckbourn’s finest stand-alone play only intermittently fires on all cylinders.

Popular on Variety

Absurd Person Singular

Garrick Theater, London; 716 seats; £45 $92 top

Production: A Bill Kenwright presentation of a play in three acts by Alan Ayckbourn. Directed by Alan Strachan.

Creative: Sets, Michael Pavelka; costumes, Brigid Guy; lighting, Jason Taylor; sound, Ian Horrocks-Taylor; production stage manager, Isobel Perrin. Opened, reviewed Dec. 11, 2007. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.

Cast: Jane - Jane Horrocks Sidney - David Bamber Ronald - David Horovitch Marion - Jenny Seagrove Eva - Lia Williams Geoffrey - John Gordon Sinclair

More Legit

  • The Inheritance review

    'The Inheritance' Announces Broadway Cast

    After an Olivier-winning run in London, “The Inheritance” is gearing up for its Broadway debut. The two-part epic has set the cast for its transfer from the West End to the Great White Way. John Benjamin Hickey, Paul Hilton, Samuel H. Levine, Andrew Burnap and Kyle Soller are among the cast members reprising their roles [...]

  • Patrick Page, Amber Grey, Eva Noblezada,

    'Hadestown' Announces 2020 National Tour

    ‘Hadestown’, the eight-time Tony award winning Broadway musical, is set for a national tour in 2020. The show will stop in more than 30 cities including Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New Orleans, and more. The musical is a stage adaptation of the Greek myths of Orpheus and Eurydice and King Hades and his wife [...]

  • Jake Gyllenhaal

    Listen: Why Jake Gyllenhaal Is His 'Best Self' in the Theater

    Looking for the best possible version of Jake Gyllenhaal? You’ll find it onstage, according to the actor himself. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “I am my best self when I’m working in the theater,” Gyllenhaal said on the latest episode Stagecraft, Variety’s theater podcast, on which he appeared with Carrie Cracknell, the director of [...]

  • Photo: Jeremy Daniel

    'The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical' Gets Broadway Run

    “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” is Broadway bound. The musical adaptation of the franchise about a teenager who discovers he’s the son of Poseidon hits the Great White Way on Sept. 20 ahead of an Oct. 16 opening night. It comes on the heels of an extensive, nationwide tour that took the show [...]

  • Tom Sturridge Jake Gyllenhaal

    Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge Celebrate 'Sea Wall/A Life' With Star-Studded Opening Night

    A star-studded audience looked on as Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge returned to the stage for their double monologue performance in “Sea Wall/A Life.” Theater-goers and celebs including Anne Hathaway, Tom Hiddleston and John Mulaney gathered in Manhattan’s Hudson Theatre for opening night, celebrating a show tackling grief, birth and death through the eyes of [...]

  • Bat Out of Hell review

    Off Broadway Review: 'Bat Out of Hell'

    No one has ever accused Jim Steinman of subtlety. The composer behind Meat Loaf’s 1977 “Bat Out of Hell” (more than 43 million albums sold worldwide) and 1993’s “Bat Out of Hell II: Back into Hell” (five and six times platinum in the UK and US) has forever trafficked in a boldly theatrical brand of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content