The Review: Alan Ayckbourn’s A Brief History of Women
I love a good Alan Ayckbourn play. I’ve been running to the theater each and every time I see his name attached starting way back in 1986 with the West End production of Woman In Mind, starring, Julia McKenzie as Susan, a delicious play performed entirely from the perspective of a Woman going through a nervous breakdown in her backyard. He is just so darn interesting and inventive with his layered constructions and playfulness. He’s a master model builder or better yet, an inventive puzzle maker, juggling time and space like no other. Many, especially the London press, see him as an important commentator on the lifestyles of the British suburban middle class, and also a stylistic innovator who experiments with theatrical styles constantly. His Norman Conquests, a three play cycle taking place within the same time frame with the same six characters presenting the same story but in a different part of the same house. Table Manners is set in the dining room, Living Together, logically, in the living room, and Round and Round the Garden is, naturally, in the garden. The synchronicity required in thought and structure is astounding, trying to get all the entrances and exits to match up so that if you layered them one on top of each other, they would fit together perfectly like a 3-D puzzle.
Same could be said of the miraculous House and Garden, his 1999 diptych of plays designed to be staged simultaneously, with the same cast in each of the adjacent two stages, timing their entrances and exits, once again, to match the goings-on in the other play. House takes place in the drawing-room, and Garden in the grounds, and while both are self-contained, each deepen the story and play off of the other.
Stephen Joseph Theatre’s A Brief History of Women, in many ways, pulls from that same structural playfulness and love of a good puzzle, giving us a sweet natured and enjoyable play in four parts. The gloriously enchanting and charming action takes place in the same connected four ‘rooms’ within the glorious Kirkbridge Manor house. It’s a thoroughly inventive fun game from this sly craftsman, and instead of the layering of a time frame, Ayckbourn creates a construct that jumps forward twenty years with each and every part spanning the years from 1925 to 1985. Within each of these compartments, we get a glimpse of the world through the eyes of the same sweet and simple farm-raised man, Anthony Spates, played with unending charm by the engaging and wonderful Antony Eden (West End’s The Woman in Black). It’s no wonder he gets kissed as much as he does, it’s hard not to.
As the decades do a game of hop, skip, and a 20 year jump, Ayckbourn attempts to examine this one man’s relationship with the women that surround him; how they alter his future, and expand his world view. As is typical of his work, Ayckbourn likes to portray the mostly bittersweet relationships between the psuedo-happy, upper-to-middle class folk in England’s countryside. The women of this environment change over the years, particularly in the way they interact with Spates and the environment around them, but as a history lesson, I’m not quite sure he succeeds in his goal whole-heartedly, as it is neither brief nor focused too deeply on the women in this wickedly fun tale. But it is a whole lot of fun, and its also not surprising that the majority of the episodes ends with a woman wanting to kiss the adorable leading man.
The design team have given the perfect setting for this madcap examination in four unique spaces in four very different years, with set and costumes by the inventive Kevin Jenkins (SJT’s Taking Steps), lighting by Jason Taylor (Broadway’s Journey’s End), and an uncredited but brilliant use of sound effects that are so well timed with the movements of the actors and the lighting, that it becomes a treat unto itself. Ayckbourn does love his doors and rooms, and all the ins and outs of the staging register loud and clear. Cinemaesque music is loudly and dramatically played, composed by Simon Slater (National Theatre’s Amadeus), ushering us each time twenty years forward. The set and blocking scream for a wider and deeper stage worthy of the fun and games that Ayckbourn has created and brought over here from Stephen Joseph Theatre (SJT), but within the largest, but still not big enough Stage A at 59E59 Theaters, the production serves up its frivolous fun fabulously and joyfully as if they don’t have a care in the world, even with the love casualty from the fireworks raining down from the heavens.
The sparks that fly in-between the men and women of these four eras are explored through the eyes and ears of the curious Anthony Spates, beginning with his teenage years as a young part-time footman to the Lord Edward Kirkbridge (Russell Dixon) and his much-younger third wife, Lady Caroline Kirkbridge, gloriously and drunkenly played by the wonderful Frances Marshall (York Theatre Royal’s The Railway Children). It’s an autumn evening at the Manor house, as Spates serves cocktails and brandy to a ballroom filled with fancy guests all there to celebrate the engagement of the Lord’s step-daughter, Lady Cynthia (Laura Matthews) to her fiancé, the kilt-wearing Captain Fergus Ffluke (Laurence Pears) with his mother, Mrs. Reginald Ffluke (Louise Shuttleworth) looking on. The party quickly goes off track as Spates stoically watches the Lord and Lady flail, like any good footman does, but he also reacts, subtly at first but more physically later on, leaving him out of a job, but inspired forward into his future. All of this because of his first kiss from a woman who steps bravely across the threshold into something new. It’s a moment that shifts perspectives and motivates Spates more than we are aware of at the time, but we certainly find out more as we move forward in time.
From that starting point, we jump to 1945, and find Spates, now actually looking his age at 37 (he never really looks like the part of a 17-year-old in Part 1), and has another job within the same walls of the Manor house, but the environment has changed dramatically, thanks to the orderly and serious stage management team of Aglow, Bending & Lang, as it does with each of the four parts. Now the Manor finds itself home to a Preparatory School for Girls, with Spates as a newly hired teacher cautiously exploring a romantic and sexual relationship with a flighty and flirty young woman, played with fun and silliness by Matthews (Salisbury Playhouse’s Dick Whittington), who effortlessly morphs from Lady Cynthia to a not-so-lady-like teacher, Miss Ursula Brock. Things once again quickly go off track, but this time beside a bonfire and because of something more than a kiss that is quite explosive.
Next up, it’s 1964 and Spates is an administrator in the Kirkbridge Arts Centre, housed in the same Kirkbridge Manor. It ends with a kiss. Naturally. And after that, the house becomes the Kirkbridge Manor hotel in 1985 with Spates stepping into his former role of manager at the age of 77, covering for the current manager while he is on holiday. This moment is very sentimental and sweet, ending with the memory of a kiss.
Each and every morphing of that Manor, Spates ages and the women alter in their power and dynamic. The woman that parade through the halls of this ever-changing Manor house are so well played, particularly Laura Matthews portraying Jenny Tyler, the deadpanned stage manager at the Arts Centre with body language to spare, but also, that wild cat teacher and romantic partner, Miss Ursula Brock. Louise Shuttleworth (West End/LA/Toronto”s Backbeat) is ever so touching as the slightly lost but feisty Gillian Dunbar. She has been cast by her husband, director Dennis Dunbar (Dixon) as the front part of a cow, sadly, with no rear end in sight, in the Arts Center’s deliciously ridiculous production of Jack and the Beanstalk that is deep in rehearsal. She also makes a strong statement as the hotel receptionist, Ruby Jensen, and as Miss Phoebe Long, the aggressively morose teacher barely mouthing the words of the hymns sung, but happily attacking another teacher, the Swiss-born German-esque teacher, Miss Eva Miller, played wonderfully by the elastic Marshall, who just wants to sit quietly reading between classes.
Laurence Pears (Mischief Theatre’s The Play That Goes Wrong) has a great deal of fun with the assortment of characters he is given, although none really take center stage, from the athletic and explosive teacher, Mr. Desmond Kennedy, creating mischief between jumping jacks, to the snarly anarchist brooding actor, Rory Tudor, who sees everything as a political statement. “Long live the Revolution!” But the true master of the ‘donning of different hats’ is the magnificently funny scene stealer, Russell Dixon (RSC’s Pericles), an actor obviously very familiar with Ayckbourn’s comic style and a regular at the SJT. He’s having the time of his life, playing the crotchety horror, Lord Kirkbridge, the sweet but huffy headmaster Williams referring, in the most British manner possible, to the ‘sex‘, the hilariously pompous Director Dunbar showing us and Rory how it’s done, and ending this four segment play with a brief (in the true meaning of the word) but wondrously funny appearance as hall porter Gordon. It’s an over the top performance, different and uniquely defined for each of the four time frames, but we lap it up like hungry cats given a bowl of milk, and smile at the very sight of him. He, like all the others, know exactly what they are here to do in this crazy Ayckbourn universe, giving us silliness and sensibility all in the same breath.
It was quite a natural thing that I signed up the moment I saw that Ayckbourn, with the Stephen Joseph Theatre of Scarborough, England, where all but four of Ayckbourn’s plays have received their first performance, was bringing his newest to the 59E59 Theatre’s #BritsOffBroadway series. The man is a genius and I couldn’t wait to hear what he had designed for this exploration. He ends this very British comic romp on a sweet and touching note, a quality that generally hangs on the very edge of all of his plays, and one of the great reasons why I love his work. The story comes full circle, essentially, filling us with appreciation and a subtle joy. As another play in the Ayckbourn library, A Brief History of Women fits nicely, inventively told by the playwright, who is also the director. He is still, after all the years, finding unique ways to tell his stories. It’s not as dynamic as a few of my favorites, but he manages quite well to keep us thoroughly entertained and satisfied over the course of its non-brief slightly too long two and a half hour visitation to the Manor house and the young man who grew up with the help, guidance, direction, and love from all those magnificent women that ventured into his life. And I’m not just referring to the ‘sex’.