NOTE: The following FIVE-STAR review dates from June 2005 and this production's earlier run at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.
One of Alan Ayckbourn’s Pendon plays in all but name (set in an unnamed “small country town”), Improbable Fiction once again follows the heightened realism of closely observed group dynamics with ever-more fantastical verbal and visual comedy. The target this time is not a pageant or an amateur operatic society, but the local writing group, and the result is a gloriously silly, very funny and oddly humane celebration of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s 50th anniversary.
John Branwell invests Arnold, the chair of the writers’ group, with a baffled, rumpled goodness, first shown in his bashfully affectionate dealings with young Llsa (Laura Doddington) who helps with his senile mother and is pretty much ignored by the rest of the group, except for man-hating failing farmer, Jess (Becky Hindley), who finds her strangely attractive.
Jess writes historical romance - except she has not written anything yet. Conventional and cowed Grace (Eileen Battye) has managed, after umpteen years, to get as far as a handful of pretty pics in her tale of goblins and squirrels. Clem (Giles New) believes his saga of alien investigation, distinguished only by the frequency of its malapropisms, is a fairly accurate account of life at the Town Hall. Ferociously misanthropic ex-schoolmaster Brevis (Terence Booth) writes musicals, but has mislaid his lyricist. The only one beside Arnold to attempt cheerfulness is Vivvi (Clare Swinburne) whose manically tinkling laugh covers the rejection revealed in her detective stories where the female sergeant is routinely reduced to tears by the charismatic inspector.
After an hour of exploring the internal chemistry of the group and a dramatic pre-interval transformation scene, the second half finds Arnold coming to terms with the group’s improbable fictions as historical romance, detective fiction and nerdish sci-fi chase each other across Scarborough’s theatre-in-the-round, with the occasional children’s story or lyric-less song. Even Arnold’s speciality, turning instruction manuals into English, surfaces as a key clue in a murder investigation!
The cast are pretty much all old Ayckbourn hands and they switch expertly from the dowdy naturalism in Act 1 to quick-changing through the products of their own deranged imaginations in Act 2. As director Aykbourn (apparently effortlessly) generates explosive pace while always being prepared to leave room for quiet humour or pathos. Roger Glossop’s set neatly places Arnold in a world of fading comfort and Pip Leckenby’s witty costumes provide instant passports to various worlds of bad fiction.