Absurd Person Singular: Background“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…. In this one, form and content meet in perfect harmony.”
By 1972, Alan Ayckbourn’s reputation as one of Britain’s most promising and successful playwrights was firmly established. His plays Relatively Speaking and How The Other Half Loves had been huge successes in the West End and the clamour to produce them by repertory theatres both at home and abroad had quickly cemented both the plays’ and the playwright’s reputations.
His latest play, Time And Time Again, had premiered at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in July 1971 and had marked a departure in direction from the overt comedy of the previous plays. Time And Time Again saw Alan exploring a character-driven plot, eschewing many of the technical tricks seen in Relatively Speaking and How The Other Half Loves. His next play would continue down the path of a character-driven plot but would also draw in elements of farce and, to all intents, tragedy. The result, Absurd Person Singular, was Alan’s first tragi-comedy; a genre which Alan and some of his best known writing has become synonymous with.
Absurd Person Singular is notably the first play Alan wrote under the auspices of Artistic Director of the Library Theatre, Scarborough. Although he had been Director Of Productions and responsible for the theatre in both 1969 and 1970, it was only after a year’s hiatus (largely due to his involvement with the American production of How The Other Half Loves) that the position became a permanent one. In 1972, he would formally be named Artistic Director: a position he would keep until his retirement in 2009. As has frequently been noted, Alan’s habit at this time was to write his plays to the latest possible deadline. As with previous plays, this meant he had to submit a title for promotional purposes long before his pen had ever touched paper. The title was plucked from an earlier abandoned play - which had apparently come to him whilst in an elevator - and ambiguous enough to suit whatever play Alan would eventually write. As a result, Absurd Person Singular’s title has no connection to the actual play despite many clever suggestions over the years as to its meaning. Ultimately it is little more than a stock title.
The summer season of 1972 at the Library Theatre consisted of David Campton’s new adaptation of Sheridan le Fanu’s classic vampire tale Carmilla, Absurd Person Singular, Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and Peter Blythe’s new play Tom, Dick And Harry. All were to be directed by Alan and would utilise an acting company of three men and three women. Rehearsals for the season initially took place in London with two weeks set aside for Carmilla, which was to be premiered at the recently opened Sheffield Crucible for a week-long run before transferring to Scarborough. Before rehearsals, the cast convened at Alan’s London flat and were naturally keen to find out more about his new play; their questions apparently met with ambiguity as he had not yet written a word of the text! Rehearsals began for Carmilla with Alan directing during the day and writing during the evening. The mystery of the forthcoming play only deepened by apparently random incidents such as Alan asking whether anyone knew of any good forfeits: “People in the cast wondered what was going on!”
Writing the play was not without its problems. Although the structure of the play - three acts set over three Christmas parties - was in place (one of only two three-act plays by Ayckbourn alongside Surprises), Alan was unhappy with what he was writing. The play was set in three living rooms with four on-stage couples, the parties themselves being centre-stage. Ten pages in and Alan realised the first party was “a very boring affair, very tedious” and he made a crucial decision. The play was relocated to the kitchens, the backstage area as such, where the real action and insight into these characters was taking place. “The really interesting things, the things people want to say to each other in private were said in here by the sink. Besides, given that the other room contained Dick and Lottie Potter, it seemed an audience would only thank me for keeping us all out here, away from his jokes.” Once the play was relocated to the kitchen and the fourth couple, Dick and Lottie, were confined to an off-stage presence, the play took off. It was completed in time for rehearsals to begin in Sheffield before continuing in Scarborough.
Although Alan was aware he was venturing into new territory with the play, even he was surprised he had written such a dark and uncompromising play. “[I] suddenly realised it was quite a chilly ending - I hadn’t thought of it that way…. It was like the director finding out why the writer had written it, quite funny really. I thought, 'wow, don’t know how they’ll take this, chaps.' Quite different.” The second act also concerned Alan as he wondered how an audience would accept the plight of Eva and her desperate attempts at suicide; reassurance about the act was provided by his partner - now wife - Heather Stoney, who felt very strongly the act should not be altered and that the audience would understand his dramatic intentions. Although Alan as a writer had ensured the comedy was never at Eva’s expense, when directing the play he emphasised her intentions were nothing less than deadly serious and that the humour of the act came from the oblivious intentions of everyone else. "Dramatically, Eva's suicide scene is one of my first experiments in the use of dramatic counterpoint, i.e. using a deeply serious action against a background of comic events (or is it the other way around?) Both serving to strengthen the other but hopefully neither selling the other short. Jane is just as serious about cleaning her oven as Eva is to commit suicide. It's all a question of priorities."
The play, performed in-the-round, opened on 26 June 1971 at the Library Theatre and it was immediately obvious to the playwright there was a problem. “I confess that it was, when it opened, half an hour too long. By the second night that had been remedied with some quite severe cutting. As it played in, too, it also gathered confidence and speed as the cast began to sense that they had a success. Audiences grew in size, and nightly response became increasingly enthusiastic.” Although only two reviews exist in the Ayckbourn Archive for the original production, Absurd Person Singular was apparently greeted by mixed reviews but was well-received by audiences and contributed significantly to what Alan reported to the theatre board as a “very successful” season, a much needed respite for the Library Theatre which had made a loss the previous year.
Of note is the fact Alan went straight from Absurd Person Singular to directing Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, a play which noted Ayckbourn writer Michael Billington feels has much in common with Alan's play. “[The second act] catches one exactly the same way as Vanya’s attempted shooting of the professor in Uncle Vanya, which for Vanya himself is an expression of accumulated rage but which, for everyone else, is comically absurd.” Alan’s interest in Chekhov’s work is well known, but Billington was the first to seriously compare his writing with the work of Chekhov.
Alan’s agent Margaret Ramsay - or Peggy as she was more commonly known - was quick to see the play in Scarborough. Peggy had been nurturing Alan’s career for many years and he respected her opinions and judgement. She declared the middle act was “stunning”, however she was less taken by the Hopcrofts and their dominance of the final act; a view that would be mirrored by Alan’s London producer Michael Codron. With hindsight, the Hopcrofts turned out to be the most dramatically interesting of the couples as they demonstrate a prescient glimpse of the dark side of capitalism that would fully develop in the United Kingdom after Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979.
Although Codron had his doubts about aspects of the play, he was still keen to produce it. This was no doubt buoyed by the fact Alan was pleased with Codron’s production of Time And Time Again, which had opened at the Comedy Theatre on 16 August 1972. Although this was not the financial success of Relatively Speaking and How The Other Half Loves - both produced by Peter Bridge - Alan felt it did far better justice to his play. While How The Other Half Loves had been an enormous financial success, Alan had serious reservations about how the play was treated, particularly in making it a star vehicle for the actor Robert Morley who had seriously upset the play’s balance and subtleties. In contrast, Codron had found a sympathetic and talented director in Eric Thompson for Time And Time Again and Tom Courtenay’s casting as Leonard was seen as a stroke of genius. Alan was so delighted he hoped the same production team could be brought on board for Absurd Person Singular.
Unfortunately this decision did not sit well with Alan’s original London producer Peter Bridge who felt he had a strong claim to the new play and who Peggy sincerely felt was bullying Alan to let him produce future plays. While Peggy dealt with the conflicting demands for Alan’s talents, Michael Codron agreed to produce Absurd Person Singular in London and brought Eric Thompson on board as director.
Although Alan was against the casting of stars in his plays, initial suggestions from Thompson and Codron mentioned bankable names who they felt would not only serve the play well, but would also be a draw themselves. This included the husband and wife team of John Alderton and Pauline Collins (who would appear in the London premiere of Confusions in 1976) as well as George Cole and Sheila Hancock. Only the latter would actually be cast, taking the role of Marion. There was a casting coup when Richard Briers was contracted to play Sidney Hopcroft or the “little fascist” as Briers thought of him. Briers had been in the London premiere of Relatively Speaking in 1967 and since then had become a hot property. The role of Sidney was against type, although Briers would go on to give an acclaimed performance.
Set over three acts - something of an anachronism today, but still common when the play was written - Absurd Person Singular offered a design challenge for the London production. In the original production the props had been moved and redressed to portray the three different kitchens, which was not practical for a West End production. The problem was solved by installing a revolve at the Criterion Theatre which was only utilised between acts - something which appeased Codron who was not keen on using (or paying for) such technology.
With Hancock and Briers in place, a strong cast was rounded out by Bridget Turner, Michael Aldridge, Anna Calder-Marshall and David Burke. The show opened on 14 July 1973 at the Criterion and became the biggest hit yet of Alan’s burgeoning career. The reviews were predominantly excellent and any perceived drawbacks were tempered by the enthusiasm for the play as a whole. Any worries Alan had about how the darkness would play seem misplaced; critic Michael Billington best summed up the general feeling when he wrote: “What makes the play rewarding is that underneath the bubbling fun you get quite a sharp pain of human fun and misery.” Many critics predicted a long-running success and they were not wrong: Absurd Person Singular would run until 1 November 1975 and have three changes of casts. On 22 January 1974 it won the Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy, the first of many major awards Alan would receive. Peter Hall, artistic director of the National Theatre, also saw it and thought it was a “remarkable evening” and asked Alan to consider writing a play for the National, which would eventually emerge as Bedroom Farce.
The play also found favour with the Royal family when Prince Charles decided to see the play on his 26th birthday accompanied by his mother, HM Queen Elizabeth II.
Despite the award and a strong box office, Codron was amazed to learn in July 1974 that the owner of the Criterion Theatre, Donald Albery, was exercising his right to end the play’s run in order to put the new Ray Cooney farce There Goes The Bride into the theatre. Irritated by having to either prematurely close the play or make an expensive move to another theatre, Codron arranged to move Absurd Person Singular into the Vaudeville Theatre on 30 September 1974, two days after it closed at the Criterion with Alan directing the new cast. It would run for more than a year at the new venue and Albery was later to admit that he might have seriously misjudged the play's popularity.
The audience reaction to the play was strong and Alan recalls it being the first play where it elicited a notable personal reaction - something that would be common with later plays such as Woman In Mind: “After one matinee there was a man who had to come and lie down in Richard Brier’s dressing room because of the last scene where Sheila Hancock played the alcoholic. He kept saying: ‘That was my wife’. He stayed there for an hour and a half, Richard was so embarrassed, there was this man sobbing quietly on his sofa, and other people kept popping round the door and saying ‘Terribly funny, Dickie. Laugh a minute.’”
The success of the play did not go unnoticed and there was soon interest from America in transferring the play to Broadway. The play opened at the Music Box Theatre on 8 October 1974 with Eric Thompson directing a strong American cast. The show was a genuine success, had largely excellent reviews and it was reported it opened to half-a-million dollars worth of advance bookings (more details about the American production can be found on the Other Articles page). The play ran for 592 performances becoming the most successful comedy on Broadway by a British playwright since Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, which ran from 1941 to 1943. It remains the most commercially successful Ayckbourn play to have been produced on Broadway (the most critically successful Ayckbourn production on Broadway is arguably the transfer of The Old Vic's production of The Norman Conquests in 2009).
Back in England, the success of the play led to a quick publication of the script by Samuel French Ltd in 1974, although Peggy was also courting the publisher Faber & Faber in the hopes of a mass market edition of the play. Impressed by the play but unsure of the appeal of Alan’s scripts, the company declined. Despite all his success, Alan had to wait until 1975 for a mass market publication of his plays, when Chatto & Windus published The Norman Conquests. They would follow this up in 1977 with the publication of Three Plays, which included Absurd Person Singular (Faber would eventually publish Alan’s plays starting with A Chorus of Disapproval in 1985). There was even interest in a film version of the play: although this would ultimately come to nothing, the value of the property in Peggy’s mind can be seen as the suggested price for the rights was $400,000 and 10% of the profits.
When the London run closed, the producer Michael Codron was keen to capitalise on the play’s success and a tour was organised opening at the Wimbledon Theatre on 3 February 1976. The production was directed by Paul Eddington based on Eric Thompson’s London production and featured John Thaw, Richard Coleman, Josephine Tewson, Paul Greenwood, Barbara Morton and Brenda Cavendish. Rights for repertory theatre performance were granted in 1976, although special dispensation had been given by Codron and Donald Albery to the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, to produce the play from 10 September 1975. Amateur rights to produce the play would be released on 1 September 1977 and it was quickly picked up by amateur companies with whom it has become a perennial favourite.
Although the film version of Absurd Person Singular was never made, there were other media adaptations of the play. In 1977, the play was commissioned by Shaun McLoughlin for Saturday Night Radio on BBC Radio 4 and directed by Kay Patrick, who had previously directed Relatively Speaking for the radio. Of course given the nature of the second act, Absurd Person Singular is not an obvious piece for radio adaptation and McLoughlin requested permission to add dialogue for the second act to give voice to Eva’s inner-thoughts as she silently attempted to commit suicide. Alan agreed to the changes, but was unable - or unwilling - to write them himself and left it to the BBC. The play was broadcast on 7 March at 8.30pm and the cast included Judy Parfitt, Stephen Murray and Christopher Godwin. Alan’s reaction to the adaptation is not recorded, although rights to repeat the play were not granted by Peggy and the radio play was never broadcast again.
More successful was the BBC’s television version of the play for New Year’s Day 1985. The adaptation featured a strong cast which included Michael Gambon, Geoffrey Palmer, Prunella Scales, Maureen Lipman, Cheryl Campbell and Nicky Henson. Regarded as one of the stronger filmed adaptations of Alan’s plays, it is a solid production which stays true to the spirit of the original with minimal cuts to the script. The play was directed by Michael Simpson, who would go on to direct the acclaimed television adaptation of Season’s Greetings, and was repeated on 21 December 1987.
Alan Ayckbourn revived Absurd Person Singular in December 1989 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough. The production was well-received with many critics noting the prescience of the play with regard to the social changes in the UK during the 1970s and 1980s. Unfortunately, the actress playing Marion - Moira Redmond - injured her back early in the play’s run and Heather Stoney was drafted in to read the part while a replacement was found. Lavinia Bertram, who had just visited Scarborough to see this production, returned to London only to find a message asking if she could play Marion until Redmond recovered. Coincidentally, plans had already been made to transfer this production to London with practically the same cast but with Lavinia taking over Lesley Meade’s role as Eva, playing opposite Redmond as Marion. Alan re-directed the play for a national proscenium arch venue tour, which was then scheduled to move into the West End, produced by Bill Kenwright. Following a short try-out tour to Northampton, Wimbledon and Guildford, the play opened at the Whitehall Theatre on 15 May 1990. The reviews were good but not outstanding and The Observer’s comment that the play was “slightly over-strained and under-cast” seemed to be the consensus of many reviewers no matter how much they enjoyed the production. The play ran until 16 March 1991 but it was not a success with Kenwright reporting the losses were “enormous” with an approximate figure of £150,000 being mentioned at one point.
Absurd Person Singular continues to be popular and in 1994 the 21st anniversary of the London production was marked by a tour by the Mobil Touring Theatre. In 2007, the play was revived by Bill Kenwright at the Theatre Royal, Windsor, directed by Alan Strachan, fresh from an acclaimed production of How The Other Half Loves earlier that year. This production successfully transferred to the West End during the same year, where it became the first Ayckbourn play to have been staged in London's commercial theatres for five years. Alan Strachan also adapted the West End production for a tour in autumn 2008, the success of which led to a revival of the production for a similarly successful tour during autumn 2009.
In 2012, Absurd Person Singular celebrated its 40th anniversary with Alan Ayckbourn directing a revival as part of the London 2012 Festival with a co-production between Chichester Festival Theatre and the Stephen Joseph Theatre; the production was performed in repertory with his latest play Surprises and received excellent reviews confirming its classic status. Despite this acclaimed production being the only major revival of the play during its 40th anniversary year, a sell-out run in Chichester and being the most successful play of the season in Scarborough, the production was surprisingly not toured by the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
Absurd Person Singular remains a classic Ayckbourn play and the first real indication of where Alan’s interests as a playwright lie. It is the first of his tragi-comedies and stands as a crucial play in Alan Ayckbourn's development as a playwright.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.