(This review appeared in The EastAfrican June 6-12, 2011 under the title Clearing All ‘Confusions’ on the Dark Chronicler)
MEL Gussow (1933-2005), the longstanding drama critic for The New York Times began an interview with British playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourn some years ago by reading out to him a quote by the critic John Russell Taylor about himself that read: “Of all our younger dramatists, (Ayckbourn) is the one who has most consistently and uncompromisingly avoided any suggestion of deeper meaning in his plays.” To which the playwright responded, “I fooled him.”
A prolific playwright, Ayckbourn, who has written more than fifty plays, surpassing Shakespeare who wrote thirty-seven, has obviously not been put off by the criticism that his plays are nothing but boulevard theatre. Apparently, Penguin had even refused to publish his plays for this reason.
The last Ayckbourn play I watched was Countdown at Phoenix Theatre in March 2009 but for me, my misgivings were more to do with the sense (or lack thereof) in trying to recreate a British play that had little resonance in a Kenyan context. It may have been the contrived British accents by some members of the cast or the disparity between a Kenyan actor and the typecast British character he or she was trying to play that made the play rather far-fetched and misplaced.
Watching the Braeburn Players’ production of Confusions, a series of five, one-act plays directed by Allen Corbet on Friday 27th May 2010 shed a different light on the matter. Without cringing at superficial British accents and mannerisms, it seemed easier to appreciate Ayckbourn’s work as a reflection of British society than I did when I watched the Phoenix production, given that Chris Hardisty for example, conveyed a convincing British, television-gazing slob in Mother Figure and an overbearing, globe-trotting, wife-cheating, London executive in Between Mouthfuls.
The plays were speckled with oppressed women, who have come to characterise the plays of Ayckbourn, described as “the dark chronicler of the lives of the Hedda Gablers behind their suburban privet hedges.”
Lucy Macridis was the almost psychotic Lucy in Mother Figure, who is wrapped up in her domestic chores to a point of oblivion. Faye Hardisty depicts the mousy Rosemary, Lucy’s concerned neighbour and the jealous and neglected Mrs Pearce in Between Mouthfuls while Rotem Yaniv Cohen captures the 1970s free-spirited hippy, Beryl, who has had her skull broken by her short-tempered boyfriend in Talk in the Park.
The cast fell into their roles with a lot of ease with the exception of Alfonce Kioka whose performance lacked conviction, maybe due to first night nerves or maybe because he wouldn’t play the young British exec in Between Mouthfuls any more than Hardisty would play a slob from South C in Mother Figure. It may have been far more effective for him to interpret his various roles based on Kenyan typecasts.
Kurt Tjossem’s performance was exceptional. In Drinking Companion, he played the travelling Salesman Harry who flirts with two young girls, Paula (Yaniv Cohen) and Bernice (Macridis) with such lines as “I have a double (room). It’s only me up there, but I have a double”. What makes his performance remarkable is not only the fact that he pulls off being drunk so realistically- which is actually one of the most difficult situations to act- but that he gradually gets drunk. As his reasoning ability deteriorates, he incessantly tells the girls that he is in room 229, inviting them to go and have a look at it saying, “I am not taking advantage of you or anything because I respect you, but here is the key to my room.” In Between Mouthfuls, he stole the show with his performance of the extremely polite but intrusive waiter.
While the literary depth of Ayckbourn’s plays remains open to debate, they definitely score highly on the entertainment scale, if the plays are well produced, which is not always the case and which is why he prefers to direct his plays himself.
In an interview with Lyn Gardener of The Guardian about a decade ago, Ayckbourn explains, “I want to make it as fun as possible for the audience. The theatre needs its inspired nonsense – and I like to think that my plays make their contribution. Fun doesn’t have to mean mindless fun.”
Judging by the Braeburn production, I would say that he achieves this.
© Anne Manyara 2011