Writer and Director: Alan Ayckbourn
Reviewer: Steve Turner
Thirty years on from receiving the Evening Standard ‘Best Comedy’ award, this Ayckbourn has lost none of the humour that gained it the award, however, the reason for the laughter has changed.
Where 30 years ago the idea that one might be bugged by the constant ringing of mobile phones and video entry systems might have seemed far off, we now laugh at the familiarity of the situation.
This is not to say that this is a piece that has the audience laughing from beginning to end, far from it in fact. The overall sense of emptiness at the heart of the central character and the lonely existence he has, combined with the bleak world he inhabits, serve as constant counterpoints to the laughter.
Composer Jerome (Bill Champion) is struggling to move on with his life four years on from his wife Corinna leaving and taking their daughter Geain with her. The only other occupant of his iron-shuttered high rise apartment is a malfunctioning robot child-minder, obtained from ‘a man down the hall’, that he has been tinkering with to try and make it work properly.
Into this existence comes Zoe, a potential escort for Jerome. Enthusiastically played by Laura Matthews, Zoe is prone to bursts of absurd self-confidence and self-pitying despair, she thus provides a stark contrast to the insular, withdrawn Jerome. To help us understand what the world outside is like Zoe arrives stressed and dishevelled after walking from the station. It transpires that she has been assaulted by the Daughters of Darkness, a local band of marauding thugs who are effectively the law in this part of London and they lay temporary siege to the building Jerome lives in.
As Zoe gradually establishes why Jerome has called her for the interview, and she slowly accepts Nan the robot, we are made aware that Jerome records everything in every room, sampling the voices and noises in an attempt to discover the elusive sound he has been looking to use as the centre point for his new work, a clue as to why his wife left. Eventually, he concedes that he needs Zoe to play the part of his fiancée as his ex-wife and daughter are coming over with a child wellbeing officer with a view to allowing him to see his daughter on a regular basis and he needs to present a stable life to them.
Act 2 introduces Corinna (Jaqueline King) and the now 13-year-old Geain (Jessie Hart) alongside Mervyn the child wellbeing officer. There are some surprises here, not the least of which is how changed Geain is and the real motive for Corinna seeking some sort of rapprochement with Jerome. Add into this some well-balanced bumbling and blustering from Nigel Hastings as Mervyn and the whole descends into a series of accusations and counter-accusations, misunderstandings and revelations until a shocking but not unsurprising end.
In the programme notes Ayckbourn himself says the play is about the creative process and how dangerous it is and it is in the final scene that we see what he is getting at. The creative process here leads finally to destruction but Jerome is so wrapped up in his thoughts that he fails to notice it.
Not quite a comedy then owing to the bleak situation and the dark undertones throughout, not quite a tragedy owing to the humour throughout, this is a hard play to categorise but certainly not a hard play to watch. Well written, performed and directed this is a great evening’s entertainment.
Runs until 28 January 2016 | Image: Tony Bartholomew