Many happy returns

Many happy returns

There have been numerous times in my life when I have wished that Scarborough was somehow nearer to home. Not for the Yorkshire coast (dramatic though that is), not for the seaside holiday resort atmosphere (hardly unique) and certainly not for the cuisine (with a couple of honourable exceptions). The thing that has induced me to return there on a pilgrimage on many happy occasions is the plays of Sir Alan Ayckbourn. In this his 80th year (and his 60th as a playwright) I felt it was time to set off once again to see his 83rd play in what is still his home location. Even if running his brainchild the Stephen Joseph Theatre itself is no longer feasible, he is still intimately connected with the venue and premieres all his work there. There is something quite magical in seeing the latest Ayckbourn creation in situ, as it were, and repeated return visits across nearly thirty years have continued to be highly pleasurable.


A double reason for going this time was Sunday night’s one off special entitled 80 Years Young. This was a retrospective of just part of his canon of work  consisting of extracts from his plays for family audiences. It is a significant, if not particularly heralded part of his body of work and what the performance brought home is that Ayckbourn doesn’t patronise or write down to his young audience members. Rather, many of the themes he deals with are identical to those found in his work for adults and the plays can be just as audacious in construction and execution as anything else he has written. Sir Alan’s first entry into the auditorium was accompanied by a huge ovation; he then  linked the 14 extracts together with typically self-deprecating commentary and delightful reminiscence. It is quite evident that though his stroke some years ago may have taken its toll, his sharpness of mind and ready wit are still hugely in evidence.


The performance itself was capped by a birthday reception in the bar where frequent Ayckbourn actor and raconteur Michael Simkins delighted us with tales of his mentor’s generosity, warmth and good humour. We raised a belated but heartfelt glass to the great man himself (his actual birthday was back in April) and I then spent a very pleasant evening mingling with the likes of Simon Murgatroyd (Ayckbourn’s archivist), some people I recognised from past summer schools I had attended at the venue back in the day and, of course, Sir Alan and Heather (Lady A) themselves. Most delightfully I was able to renew my acquaintance with current SJT company  member Mercy Ojelade who had played Hermia in the RSC’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with which I was involved in 2016 (I may just have mentioned this production before in passing). The following night I returned to the theatre to see, Sir Alans’ pertinently named latest production and what a treat it turned out to be. Here’s my review:


Alan Ayckbourn has always had a penchant for playing with the concept of time. He’s written plays where time travel occurs (Communicating Doors), plays where time is doubled up (How The Other Half Loves),  plays where time moves every which way (Time Of My Life) and plays where alternative futures are played out depending on chance circumstances and choices (Intimate Exchanges). So you would think he had tried every permutation of chronology available. But not so. In his latest piece Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present time runs backwards. So the play begins in the present day, and then, through three more scenes, continues to progress/regress until it is 38 years earlier.

Through this device we learn how Adrian, the central figure, comes to have a totally unwarranted reputation as a sexual adventurer with a misremembered, or at least misinterpreted, history of womanising and lothario-like behaviour. If it is his tragedy, it becomes our comedy as his parents and the various females in his life create for him a persona that is as far removed from the real Adrian as can conceivably be the case. All this is played out against the various birthdays of the characters in an ingenious variety of locations – the designer, Kevin Jenkins, and lighting designer, Jason Taylor, deserve particular plaudits. The direction by Ayckbourn himself is as detailed and nuanced as ever.


The cast of four are on cracking form led by the Adrian of Jamie Baughan, our unfortunate hero. It is not easy to play a truly good and innocent man convincingly but Baughan does so with consummate skill and a delightful range of facial expressions which demonstrate his confusion but also his desire to please. Had events unfolded in a forward trajectory I might have found it difficult to accept the actor as a 17 year old. But by the time we actually reached this stage, at the end of the evening, I had completely bought into it; yet another reason why the regressive time line worked.


Adrian’s parents are played by Russell Dixon (an Ayckbourn veteran) and Jemma Churchill. They are truly delightful in the opening scene where their 80/75 year old selves bicker intermittently and drop hints about what is to come (or rather, what is past, if you see what I mean). If their progressively younger selves are slightly less engaging that is probably because the focus shifts to their errant (in their eyes) son. However, we are left in no degree of uncertainty about the part they have played in Adrian’s unwarranted reputation. The fourth member of the cast, Naomi Petersen, has an absolute ball portraying the various women in Adrian’s life. Thus, she morphs from mousey latest flame Grace, to terminally depressed wife Faith, to blousy and scantily clad call girl Charity to insecure, teenager Hope; and she plays them all magnificently. I have not seen this actor before but she certainly has a great future ahead of her if this is the calibre of her work.


There are some glorious set  pieces (the card game “Snap” will never be quite the same ever again) as familiar Ayckbourn tropes jostle for attention. The intriguing offstage action, significant unseen characters, the strains imposed by ritualised family behaviours, the unintentionally disruptive central figure, communication difficulties, the inability of men to comprehend women (and vice versa) – all are present and correct. However, they come up as freshly minted and entertaining as ever and are served up within a structure that constantly surprises and delights. As Ayckbourn himself explains,“Usually in plays, we see the cause first and the effects follow on, but in this case, we see the effect first and our first question is, just how did we get there?”

When you have written such a huge body of work it is inevitable that some of it is not going to scale the heights. So I am particularly pleased to report that this a strong late entry to the Ayckbourn oeuvre. It is undoubtedly as funny and as poignant as some of his very best work – long may this trend continue.

And it seems that might certainly be the case. Apparently there are already three more plays in the bag and work has begun on a fourth. He’s also just published his very first novel called The Divide set in a dystopian future which is, by all accounts, highly entertaining. Happy 80th birthday Sir Alan; Scarborough is lucky to have you! And many happy returns to you and I hope, in the future, for me.


Production photos by Tony Bartholomew

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