Having spent a not inconsiderable portion of the last few months directing an Alan Ayckbourn play what does one do when it is all over? Why, watch another by our most currently prolific playwright of course. Working on his 53rd play The Boy Who Fell Into A Book is something which is fast receding into history but the sense of loss which always goes with wrapping up a show was somewhat ameliorated by settling down to experience Family Album his 87th (no less) in an on demand stream from the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. Both plays might be dubbed family plays though in rather different senses. The first is one of his many plays for a family audience whereas the latter is about a family and the changing world in which they live. There’s more than a hint of Noel Coward’s Cavalcade in the idea of following the members of a family across an extended time period; incidentally, Coward himself also wrote a one act play with the same title. There’s also plenty of connections to be made with Ayckbourn’s own works as the writer continues to play with both form and time to produce a richly dense piece of work which revisits tropes from his earlier works.
In 1952, Peggy Stanton (Georgia Burnell) moves into her new home with generally gently but firmly chauvinistic John (Antony Eden) and children Sandra and Richard. They do so against the backdrop of a post war world where rationing is still in place and bemoan the fact that the country is going to the dogs. In 1992 the adult Sandra (Frances Marshall) has inherited the house and struggles to cope with a chaotic (offstage) tenth birthday party for her own daughter Alison. Fast forward again to the present day and Alison (Elizabeth Boag) and her partner Jess (Tanya-Loretta Dee) are on the threshold of moving out and heading for a new start. Significantly in their world there are food shortages for many and the world is, once again, going to the dogs plus ça change! And it’s this sort of resonance which Ayckbourn sneaks into the narrative repeatedly as memories are stirred and the influences of the past come back to haunt the present. However, whereas a conventional writer would have produced a three act play with a linear narrative set in the three time frames, Ayckbourn presents the audience with a plot line which interweaves and overlaps the different eras in order to highlight themes and develop an extended commentary on society and, specifically, the changing role of women.
It’s a slow burn of a play which only gradually reveals its purpose and allows character to be shown through dialogue choices. As our best chronicler of the middle classes, Ayckbourn sharpens his scalpel to provide a steely edge to proceedings; the relationships on display are far from cosy, even when they seem so. Both Peggy and Alison are striving to break free of domestic shackles; the former is unable to do so trapped in a society where her voice is undervalued and what her husband says goes. That Alison is able to ultimately leave her past behind her is almost entirely due to the tacit encouragement of partner Jess and the complete absence of a male presence. As far as Sandra is concerned she has in a sense broken free being largely unwilling to participate in domestic management and finding herself at odds with a partner who has traded her in for a fresher model. Her dependence on drugs and alcohol however mean that she has taken things too far in the opposite direction. Both disregarded by her father and disregarding of her daughter, Sandra is a tragic yet comic figure and Marshall brings out both sides with a sensitive nuanced performance which encourages tears among the laughter. The rest of the cast also leave one impressed by the nuanced way they approach their characters.
Ayckbourn, as ever, directs his own piece and also develops the soundscape in which the actors work. This is vital to proceedings as various unseen doors open, close and in Sandra’s case fail to do so without a significant struggle. This requires some split second timing on the part of the actors – even at close range it is almost impossible to see them missing a beat. The rest of the set (design by Kevin Jenkins) takes minimalism to its logical conclusion with little more than a room outline delineated by different coloured lighting strips depending on the era in which the scene is set. To this is added a few sticks of furniture placed, replaced and replaced yet again by a pair of furniture removal men, traditional in 1952 and their somewhat more laissez faire counterparts in 2022. This is furniture inherited from an even earlier generation by Peggy and John, passed down to Sandra and then about to largely be disposed of by Alison and Jess. In the meantime, it remains a constant presence in a room which the first couple inhabit almost exclusively, through which Sandra persistently passes on her hurried way elsewhere and which the modern day couple have scarcely been into since moving in.
Though I wouldn’t particularly class this among Alan Ayckbourn’s great plays, for aficionados of his work there is plenty to keep the viewer entertained and challenged. They would also have great fun considering the many tropes which have appeared in previous works. Most noticeably there is the central conceit of different time zones occurring in an overlapping configuration – just as occurred in one of his earliest plays How The Other Half Loves and its dinner party taking place in two locations on different days but in the same space. Whereas the effect there was of hilarious comedy written by an enterprising young writer, here it is a more refined and nuanced account of seemingly more real events honed by a master craftsman. And if for some reason you don’t like this one then never fear – play number 88, Constant Companions has just been announced.