It’s no great secret that when it comes to Alan Ayckbourn I’m a bit of fan; however, although I have managed it very occasionally, I’ve seldom had the pleasure of attending the premiere of one of his plays. Thanks to modern technology that was exactly what I was able to do yesterday as The Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough launched Anno Domino as a stream. This is his 84th play, and although originally intended for stage performance, the piece has been reconceived as an audio release to help support the theatre through these difficult times. So, it was down the virtual red carpet and headphones on for an experience which turned out to have much in common with some of his most successful past plays of the past.
The first surprise is that this is not a minor work. I had been half expecting a brisk short play without a great deal of substance but not a bit of it. Anno Domino is a full-length piece with a range of characters. Sam and Milly suddenly announce at their 25th wedding anniversary celebration that they are separating. They are quite sanguine, even happy about the arrangements but it has profound effects on Sam’s parents (Ben and Ella), his sister (Martha), her new partner (Colin) and her son from a previous marriage (Raymond, but he prefers to be called Raz). Ayckbourn is using one of his favourite tropes here, the central character (or in this case characters) who go through life unwittingly destroying the security and comfort of those around them (see The Norman Conquests and Joking Apart). Except in this iteration Sam and Milly are not central – indeed we only hear from them at the play’s beginning. The rest is about the effects their somewhat ill-timed announcement has and like George in Life Of Riley they retire offstage and are, presumably, totally unaware they are causing such chaos. Ben begins to question whether he and Ella should stay together in their “let’s just rub along” relationship. Ella in turn, and ever protective of her precious son, takes her disappointment out on Martha. In a series of, mostly, duologues we see the repercussions play out with some relationships heading towards disintegration but rather more optimistically some strengthening.
The second (pleasant) surprise is that all the characters are played by just two people. Ayckbourn himself returns to acting after a 56 year absence and is joined by his wife Heather Stoney. I was immediately put in mind of one of my favourite Ayckbourn works Intimate Exchanges which also has a two actor, multiple character structure. Although this new play may not have the sweeping breadth of its predecessor it does achieve something not possible before, in that two of the male characters and briefly three of the female characters can all “appear” at once thanks to the benefits of multi -tracking. There has obviously also been some technical tweaking going on; Ayckbourn’s own voice as Raz is completely unrecognisable. I thought the soundscape (again created by the multi-talented Ayckbourn) did every bit as good a job as a visual set would have done. In some respects, it is better as it is much easier to switch between locations and give us a quick insight into where we are. The final sound mix by Paul Stear provided clarity and a good sense of pace – there is something quite delicious about overlapping dialogue when you know that it is someone effectively speaking to themselves.
My impression is that the Ayckbourns were most comfortable playing the main and oldest couple – not surprisingly I suppose – who gradually become the real focus of the play. At first Ella and Ben seem as relatively harmless and benign as Delia and Ernest in Bedroom Farce with their somewhat outmoded preference for things being the way they were before mobile phones and “foreigners everywhere”. But as the play progresses we realise just how monstrous a creation Ella is. The suffocating mother who deifies her weak son at the expense of others is a clear harking back to Laura in Time Of Your Life and her indulgence of son Sam is probably at the very heart of the divorce which has sent such shock waves through the family. Heather Stoney’s solo duologue between mother and daughter meeting for coffee is particularly well done and shows her (not unnaturally) clear comprehension of her playwright husband’s characters. Ella is all sanctimonious bluster and vindictiveness whereas Martha, although apparently mousey, has hidden inner reserves. I’m sure the tracks were recorded separately but it is a mark of Stoney’s professional delivery that the trick works. Ben is Ella’s slightly hopeless, slightly dreamy accomplice, forever escaping to potter in the garden. Interestingly it is he that suggests they split up; there’s no fear of that happening, however. Over the years Ben has become totally dependent on his wife to organise everything – even and perhaps significantly, the wearing of trousers. He is dependent on her and Ella’s need for control will see that he remains that way. The only ray of hope for Ben seems to be his forging of a relationship with the taciturn/monosyllabic Raz. However, there is one last twist in that plot strand which I’ll leave for you to discover for yourself.
The only element that I thought wasn’t quite successful was the initial dialogue between Sam and Milly. Although this did the, no doubt, intended job of wrong footing the audience into thinking they were going to be the main focus of attention I felt that the catalyst couple might have been just as successfully portrayed simply through the other characters speaking about them after the big revelation. The only thing that having them as characters did highlight was the fact that Sam fudges the job of making the announcement and leaves it to Milly – well that and the fact that there’s a delicious gag about their unfortunate initials being engraved on their anniversary present.
The dialogue contains some cracking moments but also concentrates on the communication problems which tend to delineate Ayckbourn’s characters; one particular example of how to pronounce the name of a certain garden plant springs to mind. Raz and young waitress Cinny seem to have cracked it though, they don’t bother with articulated speech and spend all their time texting (“or sexting or whatever it is you do” as Ella pronounces her displeasure). Perhaps that’s the best way forward for us all, especially when we can’t meet face to face.
While Anno Domino may not be in the very top rank of Ayckbourn’s work neither is it a minor afterthought. I think it will prove to be an interesting play to stage once we return to “the new normal” but one thing is certain; it will never be staged in quite such a unique way ever again.
Photographs by Tony Bartholomew
Anno Domino is available via the Stephen Joseph Theatre website until June 25th. Click here
My triology of blogs about my association with Ayckbourn can be found here
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