Writer & Director: Alan Ayckbourn
Designer: Kevin Jenkins
Lighting: Jason Taylor
Composer: Simon Slater
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Ingenious, mischievous and ultimately humane, A Brief History of Women is proof that, in his 58th year of writing plays, Alan Ayckbourn is still able to find new ways of entertaining us for two hours and making us think a bit as well. He makes two claims for his latest play: that it’s the first time he’s written a play with a house as the central character and that it’s the story of an ordinary man and the extraordinary women in his life. And, remarkably, both claims are true!
The house in question is Kirkbridge Manor. The play is divided into four parts at 20-year intervals as the manor undergoes many changes of role. Present throughout is Anthony Spates, the “ordinary man”. At 17 in 1925, he is a local farm boy, a very well mannered one, who serves as part-time footman when extra staff are needed by Lord and Lady Kirkbridge, such as now, Lady Cynthia’s engagement party. By 1945 the manor is a girls’ school, he is a teacher and the occasion is a rather over-explosive November 5th. At the age of 57, as administrator of Kirkbridge Arts Centre, he plays his part in a disastrous pantomime rehearsal and finally, as Kirkbridge Manor Hotel opens as a pastiche of former glories, he is the retired manager (he is 77, after all) brought in to welcome some special guests.
There is some unevenness of tone – the opening section’s portrayal of the appalling upper classes goes beyond caricature – but the character of Anthony Spates makes the whole thing believable. By a typically paradoxical cast of mine Ayckbourn creates a character of breath-taking normality, kindly, rational and self-effacing, who somehow plays a key role in a dramatic series of life-changing, sometimes life-ending events.
In Antony Eden he finds the ideal interpreter of the part. Of course, we have to suspend disbelief when he appears as a 17-year-old, but the gauche correctness of his bearing is perfect. The aging between the central scenes, from 37 to 57, is subtle and totally convincing, and throughout he is the epitome of unselfish decency – and, oddly enough, not at all boring.
In each part Ayckbourn surrounds Spates with three female and two male characters, all played by the same five actors, each of the women taking her turn as one of the “extraordinary women” in his life. Only Russell Dixon’s wordless turn as a breathless porter in a horrendous black wig in the final play is an obvious case of finding parts for all the cast.
One of the joys of this play is the sort of anticipation and recognition theatre goers used to experience in the days of weekly rep: what will he or she be playing this time? So Russell Dixon has the chance to deliver three very different bravura performances: the grotesque Lord Edward Kirkbridge, misogynist and anti-radical, the pompous Welsh headmaster and, best of all, Dennis Dunbar, camping it up as panto producer and dame.
Similarly, Frances Marshall, Laura Matthews, Laurence Pears and Louise Shuttleworth all revel in the surprises and contrasts of the script, Shuttleworth, for instance, moving from two acidly self-certain characters in the first half to a woman so modest she prefers playing the front end of the cow to showing her face.
Kevin Jenkins’ transformations of the manor are as clever and as smartly handled as the cast’s changes of character. As the action moves between the various rooms of the manor, Jason Taylor and Simon Slater direct the audience’s attention with impressive precision, every click of a latch meticulously timed, ever conversation fading as a door closes.
Runs until 7 October 2017 | Image: Tony Bartholomew