Arriving at the Theatre Royal, I wasn’t sure what to expect of this play. I looked around the foyer and quickly realised that I was surrounded by audience members easily old enough to be my grandparents. I began to think that perhaps the revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s 1972 play; “Absurd Person Singular” would be rather dated affair in comparison to his more recent productions. However, my fears were swiftly alleviated as hearty laughter filled the theatre proving that great comedy clearly spans the generations.
Set on three successive Christmas Eve’s this nutty play documents the changing social rankings and marital turbulences of three couples in the 1970’s. The three acts weave together a string of stressful Christmas gatherings, starting with the Hopcroft’s drinks party; an event of desperate ingratiation and social climbing. The audience is privy not to the action of the party in the living room, but only to the hidden backstage panic (and relative privacy) of the kitchen where the couples reveal the flaws that their public personas would not allow to be exposed. Through this focus on off- stage action, Ayckbourn shrewdly draws upon his audience’s imagination to fill in the blanks. Dick and Lottie are spoken of frequently and are the life and soul of the party but remain a mystery of the off stage action and are never introduced. This clever use of absence throughout the play creates enigmas that force the audience to participate in the action through use of their own inventiveness.
The play gets darker as it progresses but never loses its charm. Calamity is made all the more poignant through its juxtaposition with comedy and farce as Eva’s endeavour to gas herself in the oven is misinterpreted as an effort to clean it by her oblivious guests. By the third act social mobility has been fully exercised and a complete reversal of roles has occurred. An unexpected gathering is set at the previously socially superior Brewster – Wright’s home to reveal a lonely marriage and an emaciated, alcoholic wife. It culminates with the now unstoppably successful Sidney Hopcroft calling the shots as he screams “Dance, dance, dance!” from a table top, orchestrating the absurd flailing movements of the others like a puppeteer. It is brutal, painful and poignant and induces a guilty feeling in an audience who recognise the cruelty in their own laughter but just can’t help it.