What has changed is our perception of Ayckbourn the playwright. The programme makes much of the fact that Act 3 is deliberately less funny than Act 2 and that the darkness that descends is a significant turning point in his writing career. I think that the Scarborough audience laughed as much at the closing stages as any other point in the play (I wasn’t counting the laughs, unlike the original New York producers): Sir Alan has now trained us, in his benign way, to enjoy the humour of the dark places of the soul.
Sidney Hopcroft, a small businessman of limited intelligence and unlimited gaucheness, advances his career by fostering those people he sees as influential, notably a bank manager and an architect. Over three Christmases, fortunes change dramatically, with alcohol, drugs and collapsing buildings marking the decline of the other two couples.
All six characters have their moments when attention focuses on them, though the upward thrust of the Hopcrofts is the main arc of the play. Under Ayckbourn’s deft direction, a cast well-versed in the ways of the Stephen Joseph Theatre thrives among the uncomfortable intricacies of shifting relationships. Ben Porter (Sidney) remains the same blinkered, braying, apparently unthinking social climber, whether wheedling or triumphing, and as his wife, Jane, the excellent Laura Doddington lays claim to much of our sympathy whilst constituting a social disaster area. The feckless, womanising architect (Richard Stacey) and his neglected wife (Ayesha Antoine, underplaying on the comic edge of despair) shift status subtly and convincingly. Bill Champion’s urbanity and Sarah Parks’ crushing snobbery as banker and wife initially form an amusingly patronising duo, only to diverge under the influence of alcohol and a dwindling customer base.
Absurd Person Singular takes us into the kitchens of all three couples and Michael Holt’s meticulous designs, full of telling detail, make such an impression that the audience is inclined to remain in the theatre during the intervals to applaud the scene changes – a triumph of design, a possible disaster for bar takings!