The work of Alan Ayckbourn returned to the West End last night (11 December 2007, previews from 27 November) care of an all-star revival of his 1972 comedy Absurd Person Singular, which is booking for a limited season at the Garrick Theatre (See News, 6 Nov 2007). This new production is the first Ayckbourn in the West End since the start of the playwright’s self-imposed moratorium in 2002.

Absurd Person Singular visits three couples in their three kitchens on the Christmas Eves of three successive years: the lower-class Hopcrofts; their bank manager and his wife; and their architect neighbour with a suicidal wife. The Hopcrofts’ advance and the other couples’ decline are played out against a series of behind-the-scenes Christmas party disasters.

The three couples are played by David Bamber, Jane Horrocks, John Gordon Sinclair, Lia Williams, David Horovitch and Jenny Seagrove. The production is directed by Alan Strachan, designed by Michael Pavelka and presented by Bill Kenwright Ltd. One of the most prolific playwrights in British history, Alan Ayckbourn has written more than 70 plays, most of them premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre where he was artistic director for 36 years. He stepped down earlier this year, following a debilitating stroke (See News, 4 Jun 2007).

His West End comeback with this revival of Absurd Person Singular drew “seriously pleasurable” cries from first-night critics. In Alan Strachan’s “niftily directed” and “strongly cast, finely acted production”, critics were particularly impressed by the female leads: Lia Williams’ “freaky” Eva, Jenny Seagrove’s “brilliant” and “poignant” Marian, and Jane Horrocks’ “blissful” and “amusing” Jane. While remaining “knock-dead funny”, Ayckbourn’s ability to deal simultaneously with serious subjects of class and “casual callousness” and thereby convey a “dark” and “deeply poignant” message was well appreciated. “A glorious period treat” all round!

  • Michael Coveney on (four stars) - “Director Alan Strachan is an Ayckbourn specialist … Absurd is something else: a knock-dead funny, brutally well constructed farce of drink, desolation and class warfare involving three couples in each others’ kitchens over three successive so-called festive seasons … None of the actors are playing for laughs, which is why they follow so thick and fast, Horovitch entering with a soaked trouser leg from a rogue soda siphon, or Horrocks and Bamber lying prone in a fit of misguided helpfulness, scrubbing the oven and seeing to the plumbing. The rictus of hospitality conceals the power struggle of social hierarchy as a building development in the town involves all three couples in wheels and deals and financial misfortune manifest in the bleak midwinter of the third act … The action is retained firmly in the early 1970s, with Michael Pavelka’s design catching both the brave new world of fitted kitchen drawers and cupboards and the miseries of adapted Victorianism, and Brigid Guy’s costumes – shiny plastic dresses, floral patterns, flares and velveteen - providing a glorious period treat in themselves.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “Ayckbourn has always written about class; but this play, in charting the unstoppable rise of Sidney Hopcroft and the comparable decline of his superiors, is on to something more … In asserting Ayckbourn's political shrewdness, I am not denying his capacity to make us laugh. But I am struck by the dangerous, edgy nature of the laughter which frequently arises from stunning male insensitivity. Alan Strachan's production combines furious fun with awareness of Ayckbourn's larger purpose. David Bamber's Sidney is not just a shrewd chancer but a demonic reptile who relishes his growing power over the people who once patronised him. Lia Williams shows Eva's tragic regression from freaky neurotic to blank-eyed suicide case. And David Horovitch captures the bloodhound-like pathos of the banker who dwindles into a class relic muffled up in his freezing kitchen. But all the performances are good, including Jane Horrocks' hausfrau, Jenny Seagrove's banker's wife relapsing into a gin-fuddled stupor and John Gordon Sinclair's feebly self-exculpating architect.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “Drama that is as funny, as accessible, and as unexpectedly painful as Ayckbourn at the top of his game is rare indeed, and London's Theatreland has seemed impoverished without him … This beautifully cast, niftily directed revival of one of his greatest and most daring comedies stands comparison with the great 1970s Ayckbourn productions … It's the women who dominate this play, as they react to their variously unsatisfactory husbands. Jane Horrocks is in blissful comic form as the cowed housewife, terrified of the posh guests arriving at her spotlessly clean abode … I didn't think anyone could match her but Lia Williams manages it in the second act when, entirely mute, she repeatedly tries and fails to commit suicide after her husband has threatened to walk out on her … Jenny Seagrove has never been better than as the poised, patronising Marian who gradually declines into alcoholism in a manner that combines the comic and the deeply poignant … This is a classic night of Ayckbourn. It feels almost indecent to laugh, but somehow you just can't stop yourself.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “An irresistible piece of theatre lights up the West End in time for Christmas. Absurd Person Singular offers a perfect antidote to the cloying bonhomie of the season and an evening in which waves of laughter give way to clouds of pathos … The Sidney of David Bamber, an actor whose gesticulating hands regularly put on the most excessive, almost non-stop show in town, do their familiar waving. Jane Horrocks, delectable and amusing as Jane in her Marigolds and high degree anxiety, flutters around indulging an escapist obsession with cleaning. As wife to David Horovitch's fine, true-to-life, eternally unaware bank manager, Jenny Seagrove's Marian puts on a brilliant comic show and ultimately a poignant one … Lia Williams' Eva, wife to John Gordon Sinclair's bland architect Geoffrey, tumbles even further when, apprised of his adultery, she passes act two in eloquent, grief-struck silence … Ayckbourn slips into funny, bad taste absurdity here. His last act coda, though, all bittersour humour - the middle-class couples brought low - pertinently marks the ascendancy of the ghastly, nouveau riche Hopcrofts. It was seriously pleasurable.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) “Last night I sensed an almost masochistic glee in Ayckbourn’s determination to set himself scary technical and emotional tests – and I felt he’d passed them all … It’s dark, it’s hilarious and, in Alan Strachan’s strongly cast, finely acted production, it is often both at once … Each character is nicely delineated and each evolves during the play, Seagrove from arrogant assurance to drunken chaos, Williams through desperation to a new strength, and, most importantly, Sidney from hand-wringing insecurity to confidence and power. And somewhere here is Ayckbourn’s point. The nobs decline. So does the bohemian Geoffrey, an architect whose latest building collapses. This little world ends up belonging to Sidney, the property developer, with his philosophy of dog-eat-dog … Has Ayckbourn ever written about class divisions, casual callousness and his other pet topics with such incisive humour? I don’t think so.”

    - by Tom Atkins