Absurd Person Singular is a dark comedy in three acts, featuring drinks parties held by three couples on consecutive Christmas Eves. Ayckbourn’s daring genius is to move the action away from the living room where the party is going on and into the kitchen behind, where the panic and social ambition are hilariously on display. A fourth couple is never seen, forever chatting and eating peanuts in the living room while the others gossip about them.
We are in the Seventies and part of the fun is in the naff detail: the bright orange kitchen of the lower middle class Hopcrofts, where neurotic housewife Jane (Leigh McDonald) scrubs obsessively before the guests arrive and her bullying ambitious husband Sidney (Joseph Alessi), sprays fly killer over himself in a social panic. (‘Gorgeous’ cologne, drawls upper class Marion.) These status-revealing details wickedly evolve during the play, revealing the changing fortunes of the Hopcrafts, the bohemian Jacksons and the upper class Brewster-Wrights. As Oscar Wilde noted, only the shallow do not judge by appearances and Alan Ayckbourn knows how the British enjoy this sport.
Ayckbourn has written more than 70 plays, most after this one in 1972, but Absurd Person Singular is probably the most popular. He pushes his art to the limit with the character of Eva Jackson, played by Tracey-Ann Oberman, the murderess in the TV soap EastEnders. Eva is silent almost throughout the famous middle act during which she attempts suicide by gas, electricity, poison, hanging and throwing herself out of the window in reaction to husband Geoff’s philandering. Her attempts are ignored and misinterpreted by the other characters, most wonderfully by Jane Hopcroft, who pulls Eva’s head out of the oven trilling that she knows just she feels, she’d be just the same herself with guests due and setting about cleaning it merrily.
By the third act the Hopcrafts are no longer neurotic and inferior, but in control. Like a demented Punch in his Christmas party hat Sidney Hopcraft directs a sadistic game of musical statues. He capers on the table while the others unwillingly dance to his tune and wife Jane imposes humiliating forfeits – an orange between the knees, an apple under the chin.
The alcoholic Marion Brewster-Wright dances in her negligee with a bottle of gin and the smooth architect unwillingly dances too because he is now dependent on Sidney for a living. The philistines, says Ayckbourn, are calling the tune.
This is an uplifting night out with audiences humming along to telling hits like Stand by Me and Abba’s Knowing Me, Knowing You. But then suddenly you wonder why you are smiling. And the biggest laughs are usually at the darkest moments, prompting the famous comment of an early member of the audience: ‘If I’d realised what I was laughing at while I was laughing I might not have laughed.’
Paul Kerryson’s direction is beautifully tight with not a line lost and the sets are impressive. Designer Juliet Shillingford and her team have created not just the kitchens of the three couples but their streets and their lives.
Showing until May 28th at the Curve Theatre, Leicester