Alan Ayckbourn has always been a restless writer. Though best known for smart social satires like The Norman Conquests or Absurd Person Singular, the 78 year-old has never been constrained by genre or form. A huge sci-fi fan as a child, his career is studded with futuristic plays. There have been time-travelling sex farces (Communicating Doors), android romances (Comic Potential) and medical romcoms (Surprises).
His next trick is an epic dystopian thriller – a Netflix pitch of a play. Told in two parts, The Divide looks ahead to 2101 when British society has been segregated by sex. Living in fear of a virus carried by adult women and fatal to grown men, the country has made the gender gap real: men to the north, women down south. Teachers and monitors can move freely, and a few boys are born into all-female families, otherwise society is single sex. So too is the family unit.
The far-right rules; the Orthodox Party having imposed strict regulations according to its sacred text, The Book of Certitude. Physical contact between the sexes is absolutely forbidden. Women wear restrictive, corseted garments, and both sexes don facemasks to prevent infection. Heterosexual propaganda and historic materials are banned. It's a chilling glimpse of a born-again Puritanism: faceless, sexless and repressive.
The Divide reconstructs that world through its writing. Ayckbourn frames his story from the future, 100 years ahead, as two lecturers look back through historical documents: council minutes, correspondence and two teenage diaries. One belongs to Soween Clay (Erin Doherty), a young girl coming of age in a female commune; the other to her brother Elihu (Jake Davies), one of four boys in the town. Their ‘MaPa' – the breadwinner of the single-sex family – is the ultra-Orthodox councillor Kest Clay (Thusitha Jayasundera) and, as the pair hit puberty, they must succumb to the strictures of the social order, suppressing the urges bubbling up from within.
It is, effectively, the story of the beginning of the end, as both siblings fall in love with the same girl, Giella Tarnis (Weruche Opia). Her progressive parents, with their stash of colourful old dresses and heterosexual history, provide a path to liberation. As Elihu and Giella come closer, long-standing lies come apart.
Ayckbourn has, in effect, written a passable novel for young adults and somehow – somehow – it's ended up on stage. All six hours of it. Found texts let us see the society from the inside, but the device, so effective in Headlong's 1984, bogs the whole story down. Everything needs narrating, so even the simplest scenes feel overly slow – no matter how fluid Annabel Bolton's minimalist, black-and-white staging.
It doesn't help that Ayckbourn's tone varies wildly, peppering a sombre world of women with chipper snapshots of male golfers and executives up north. Nor that the central story loses its way. As it builds to a climax – one final reckoning – it loses all momentum and, when the tension goes slack, it starts to look silly.
The problem is that it's not clear what Ayckbourn's trying to say. His single-sex societies have plenty of resonance, but ambiguities in the world order make the metaphor fuzzy. Is this a misogynist system, or an ultra-feminist one? Who has overall control – men or women? The play's strong on the way political orders become fact, and the near-impossiblities of breaking beyond established world orders. But if it is warning about impending authoritarianism, at points, The Divide feels mighty reactionary. There's a sense that heterosexuality will out, and that patriarchal structures persist in the absence of men, even that women need men to be men. Worse than that, alongside a Fringe full of trans-narratives, Ayckbourn splits gender smack down the middle – no complications, no concessions, just one big binary. Alan Ayckbourn is not the feminist you're looking for.
Thank goodness, then, for Doherty, who sustains the show near single-handedly by sheer force of personality. She gives a perfect fingers-and-thumbs turn as Soween; always vulnerable, never beaten down. Davies is a fidgety, feisty presence, and Jayasundera makes a stern overbearing Orthodox MaPa. There's strong support from Sophie Melville, as a bullying local girl, and Richard Katz as, well, every adult male in Britain, but that just sums up the silliness of putting this story onstage.
The Divide runs at the King's Theatre, Edinburgh, until 20 August, before transferring to the Old Vic in January 2018.