I’ve been having a bit of an Ayckbournfest recently. Just last weekend my production of The Boy Who Fell Into A Book completed its run and I swiftly followed that with the on demand stream of his latest piece from Scarborough, Family Album. Lastly I caught up with Improbable Fiction which is a thematic companion piece to TBWFIAB currently onstage at Tower Theatre. It’s a unique never before attempted pairing to produce the plays contiguously. Although the plot lines, characters and even intended audience are entirely different, experiencing them close together reveals a clever respinning of an original idea which highlights the power of the imagination and humankind’s basic need for story telling whatever age we may be.
Improbable Fiction, far from being a comment on government policy, is part domestic comedy and part fantasy extravaganza. It was written in 2005 and was deliberately created as a light piece to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Ayckbourn’s own home venue, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. Directly inspired by a talk the playwright gave to a writer’s circle, he soon divined that the meeting was more of a social gathering than providing any real impetus to getting anything down on paper. Thus, he created the Pendon Writer’s Circle – the fictional and geographically mobile Pendon features repeatedly in the writer’s works – as a refuge for some rather sad and clearly lonely people who long to fire up their imaginations in order to free themselves from the everyday cares which surround them. Failing farmer Jess, cowed housewife Grace, relationship frustrated Vivvi, nerdy conspiracy theorist Clem, disaffected teacher Brevis (he hates kids) all meet at the house of chairman Arnold. He’s virtually trapped in his home looking after his bedridden mother with only occasional visits from young Ilsa and meetings of the struggling writing group to keep him going. He’s the sort who puts his heart and soul into a cause though receives little help or support from the rest, many of whom clearly dislike each other and seem to spend their time politely and not so politely putting each other down.
In the first half of the play their ineptitude reveals itself through an interminable meeting where work is designed to be shared. Jess and Grace, however, have a severe case of writer’s block; by contrast Vivvi and Clem are over productive; Brevis belittles all and sundry and complains that because his supposed collaborator on a musical version of The Pilgrim’s Progress has gone AWOL he is stuck in the Slough of Despond; Arnold simply tries to hold everything together. Relief carer Ilsa (who herself seems to have not a care in the world) serves the half time coffee and acts as an unwitting inspiration to fire the group’s imagination. In a twisting, turning and surprising second half the books that are being written spring to life in the shape of a Victorian bodice ripper, a 1930s crime thriller and a futuristic sci fi piece involving alien abductions complete with author Clem’s much mangled use of language. The rest of the group’s writing is also represented but to reveal that here would give away too much.
As a play Improbable Fiction is a curious beast having entirely contrasting halves which do not sit particularly easily together. There’s initially a great deal of expositional set up but this all bears fruit eventually as the jokes come thick and fast after the interval. It pays to listen closely in the initial stages in order to fully “get” the payoffs. There are some great opportunities for most of the cast to have a ball, character and genre swapping for all they are worth. So, I felt a little sorry for Sean McMullan as Arnold who has to play the straight man throughout, though he does so with a nice sense of befuddlement and an ability to say quite a bit about his unacknowledged feelings for Ilsa without uttering a word. Isabelle Boreham, in her company debut, makes a delightfully likeable and unwitting catalyst for the action, though I did wish that the scene in which the young girl serves the beverages had been mined for even more hesitation and embarrassment. In many ways it should be the most comic scene of the evening but I felt it fell flat.
The rest of the team have a number of frantic backstage costume changes to effect – Jean Carr, Emma Efkeman and Isabel Putt’s designs are a definite plus in proceedings – and they manage well not to miss a beat. I particularly liked Stephanie Irvine’s ditzy sci fi assistant which was such a contrast with her “real life” character and Tony Sears’ duo of a poetry spouting Inspector and dissolute Victorian nephew. These, and indeed all the other characters are stock stereotypes but of course have been deliberately written that way to ensure that we get maximum fun out of proceedings. Unfortunately, the technical side of things seemed less assured. There were a number of occasions on which the actors did not hit their spots and were performing with their heads in shadow and the management of an ever changing telephone can only be described as clumsy. The dialogue is polished so the production needed to be equally slick.
For all its odd construction as a play and the niggling feeling that it is probably more fun for the actors than the audience, I have a very soft spot for Improbable Fiction – after all, I do make an appearance in the dialogue as an offstage character. (If you’re either a) intrigued or b) confused by that statement please click here and all will be revealed) Take it for what it was originally meant to be, a light hearted celebratory piece, and you won’t feel disappointed. In the end it’s a play which foregrounds the force of the imagination and encourages us all to think creatively. In these gloomy and foreboding times that can surely only be a very good thing indeed.
Production photos by Robert Piwko
Improbable Fiction is at Tower Theatre – click here
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4 thoughts on “Improbable Fiction (Review)”
Ah happy memories of 2007!
I’d’ve come to see it but I’m having my gallbladder removed tomorrow!
I hope it goes well, and that all is well with you.
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Sorry to hear that — or is this one of those things where you are better off for the removal? Either way hope it goes well for you
It’s a better out than in jobbie! A day case – keyhole surgery. Thanks for the kind thoughts.
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Reblogged this on City Adventurers and commented:
The City Adventurers are looking forward to their visit to this show