Absurd Person Singular: Quotes by Other People

This page includes quotes and observations about the play Absurd Person Singular by people other than Alan Ayckbourn, predominantly drawn from books and articles about Alan Ayckbourn or British theatre. Reviews of the play can be found in the Reviews pages.

"In Absurd Person Singular in 1972 Alan Ayckbourn had discovered that if you really want to show what is going on between people at parties you don't concentrate on the bonhomie of the living room, but the kitchens, where emotional hell is breaking loose in the hissed commands and panic responses of the hosts and intervention by the guests just cranks up the pressure."
(Paul Allen, Bedroom Farce programme, 2009)

"The three-act structure was not uncommon in theatre at the time - that supposedly revolutionary play Look Back in Anger makes good use of it - but has gone severely out of fashion since. Of course, it reflects the fact that three couples are involved (but so they are in How the Other Half Loves, which doesn't need two intervals). Once again, Ayckbourn's priority is to give physical expression to the narrative. Sidney, a bully with whom we are out of sympathy at the end of Act One, has been humiliated in Act Two while bossily but not unkindly trying to do a bit of plumbing; the story needs to move in a third direction to make its point."
(Paul Allen: A Pocket Guide to Alan Ayckbourn’s Plays, 2004, Faber)

"This is the Big One. The one that shows his [Ayckbourn's] fascination with the desperation behind English social rituals interlocking with his well-oiled comic craft. Most dramatists seem to start with a set of ideas they wish to convey and gradually master theatrical technique as they go along (David Hare is a classic case of a dramatist whose plays get more polished with time). Because he started so young, Ayckbourn never seemed to have any problem with the clock-making aspect of play-writing. But, as his vision of life has matured, so his plays have got richer. In this one, form and content meet in perfect harmony…. This is really a play about many things. The provincial pecking order. Male myopia. Empty rituals. Desperation inside marriage. But what gives it theatrical momentum is partly the slightly artificial Dickensian structure whereby the action covers Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Future and partly the way it shows Sidney and Jane Hopcroft progressing to the top of the heap."
(Michael Billington: Alan Ayckbourn, 1990, Palgrave)

"What Ayckbourn also pins down [in Absurd Person Singular], to his great credit, is the cost-cutting tackiness that accompanied the capitalist vigour of the Seventies enterprise culture. As a property developer, Sidney creates jobs and is a vital figure in the local economy; but, as the architect waspishly observes, ‘half his tenants are asking to be re-housed and they haven’t even moved in yet.’ Behind Ayckbourn the Contemporary Classicist, once dubbed by a German critic ‘the Moliere of the middle-classes’, lay an increasingly alert anatomist of social change."
(Michael Billington: State Of The Nation, 2007, Faber)

"In his new play [Absurd Person Singular] he seemed to have gone even further in his blend of comedy and tragedy…. Despair mixed with hilarity in a way that made one think back to Chekhov in Uncle Vanya or Nikolai Erdman in The Suicide."
(Michael Billington, The Guardian, 26 May 2012)

"It [Absurd Person Singular] didn't just mark a personal breakthrough for Ayckbourn, in that he pushed the formal boundaries to the limit, it also confirmed him as one of the most perceptive social commentators in British theatre."
(Michael Billington, The Guardian, 26 May 2012)

"Ayckbourn is a political propagandist who works on people's minds without letting them know he's doing it or drawing attention to his own rectitude."
(Ronald Brydon, Plays & Players, September 1973)

"It was easy to forget, in his [Ayckbourn's] courteous and self-effacing presence, that he is one of the world’s most successful playwrights, with more plays to his name than Shakespeare, comedies that probe and often skewer the pretensions of the English middle classes, occasionally with compassion but always with humour. In his work, it often seems that the darker the moment the more hysterically riotous the comedy becomes.
In his 1972 comedy
Absurd Person Singular, there is a tragic sequence of events where a depressed wife desperately tries to kill herself, first at the oven, then with tablets at the sink, and later with a rope at an overhead light-fitting. Every attempt is foiled by someone who innocently walks in and assumes she is either cleaning the oven or unblocking the sink or changing a light-bulb... and all the time her suicide notes are being accidentally destroyed. These are moments of heartbreaking tragedy and yet, in the writing, everything is pitched to an almost farcical level where hysterical laughter is elicited from an audience that desperately wants to empathise with the plight of this woman. I remember discussing how this was achieved and I mentioned my own forays into this comic style. He listened intently as I described circumstances and scenes, occasionally asking about moments of reaction and moments of silence. He then suggested that if I achieved that response “you were doing everything right. Hopefully,” he continued, “on the way home, they will guiltily wonder why they laughed at such human horror and will then deeply ponder the tragedy. You will have put the knife in without anyone noticing.” I have constantly cherished his words throughout my playwriting career – including his wry advice to “only begin to worry when you start winning awards and emptying theatres.”
(Bernard Farrell - playwright, Irish Times, 8 February 2012)

"It [Absurd Person Singular] is a hard, beautifully constructed play. But because it is commercial, it tends to be unregarded. I think Ayckbourn is much more likely to be in the repertoire of the National Theatre in fifty years' time than most of the Royal Court dramatists."
(Sir Peter Hall: Peter Hall's Diaries, 1983, Hamish Hamilton)

"Absurd Person Singular is as cruel as it is laughable. For, as it moves across its three acts, it traces the disintegration of a comfortable social order and its transformation into a meritocracy. Here values are less certain, and the bully and the venal can triumph. The end of ambition is success and it is also power. Alan Ayckbourn always fears and mistrusts power because its abuse creates and exploits the underdog. At the close of this play, we see many forms of power - sexual, social and professional - grabbed by Sidney Hopcroft as he dictates the action, blackmails for sexual favours, and displays the fruits of his success."
(Michael Holt: Alan Ayckbourn, 1999, Northcote Press)

"This [the third act of Absurd Person Singular] was Ayckbourn's most savage act to date; as audiences laughed they were also aware of the horror of humans bound up in themselves and in a meaningless dance symbolising the social round or life itself."
(Oleg Kerensky: The New British Drama, 1977, Hamish Hamilton)

"It’s hard to choose only one Alan Ayckbourn play from more than 80; no other writer has combined domestic comedy and social satire with such a devotion to stretching the form. The Norman Conquests is a wonder, but this one is to Ayckbourn what Goldfinger is to Bond films: the one where all the ingredients come together. Over three Christmas parties, a socially anxious businessman, Sidney, rises and rises while his supposed social superiors struggle through failure, drinking, depression. Big laughs, big insight."
(Dominic Maxwell, The Times, 14 April 2018)

"[Absurd Person Singular] is rather more than a period chronicle, and also rather more than a sceptical study of marriage and relationships. It is about the change and decay to which we are all eventually subject. The Hopcrofts may have their temporary triumphs and the Evas their respites. The Geoffreys Marions and Ronalds demonstrate a wider, more general truth. Like everything else in Ayckbourn's bleak, funny world, time itself is deeply inimical to hope, effort, fulfilment and happiness."
(Benedict Nightingale, An Introduction To Fifty Modern Plays, 1982, London)

"From now on, Ayckbourn would be continually sniffed at for his popularity and even theatricality - Absurd Person Singular is a brilliant exploration of off-stage action, since the parties and gatherings take place in venues out of sight from the audience - but his standing with the general public continues to rise."
(Dominic Shellard: British Theatre Since The War, 1999, Yale University Press)

"Alan loves complication. In How The Other Half Loves it's brilliant the way those two dinner tables come together, and in Absurd Person Singular, he's written the offstage action rather than the onstage action."
(Eric Thompson - director of the original London production, The Times, 27 July 1974)

"Ayckbourn had already proved with Relatively Speaking that he was a natural farceur with an uncommon flair for comic invention. But in Absurd Person Singular he harnessed this to a brilliant and serious social metaphor and started to explore themes which were to preoccupy him for many years: English insensitivity and casual cruelty; male oppression and female neurosis; the sterility of English middle-class family life and the festive rituals that are such a gruesome part of it. Desperation cowering just beneath the surface of socialised behaviour is the stuff of Ayckbourn's acutely observed social comedy.
Absurd Person Singular introduced the multi-perspective device that became one of Ayckbourn’s trade-marks, allowing for repeated incidents seen through the eyes of various couples, in different time spans and locations. The play also exploits the ‘dramatic possibilities of offstage action', used brilliantly to explore social mobility and ‘relative values'. It is, as he says, the ‘first of [his] off-stage action plays‘....
Absurd Person Singular shows Ayckbourn at a fascinating point in his development, revealing himself as both comic virtuoso and astute social commentator. The play's exploration of the middle classes discovering and aggressive and entrepreneurial streak foretold the social changes that were to overtake England in the decade that followed. It would hard to think of a play that caught this seismic moment with greater hilarity or pain than Absurd Person Singular."
(Stephen Unwin: A Pocket Guide To 20th Century Drama, 2001, Faber)

"Some critics see the play as anticipating Thatcherism in showing the get-ahead, self interested Hopcroft's rise, but it's also possible to viewer it, in Eva's new self-composure in the third act, as a harbinger of female empowerment."
(Dominic Cavendish, Daily Telegraph, 22 June 2022)

All research for this page by Simon Murgatroyd.