Even closed theatres can’t stop some people! As full of stamina and enthusiasm as ever and mighty quick to adapt, here comes prolific, Tony and Olivier award-winning playwright, Alan Ayckbourn, with the world premiere of his 84th play, Anno Domini. Going with the lockdown flow, he’s adapted his full-length stage version into an audio play, available online for a month.
The cast, too, has been carefully chosen in accordance with Lockdown limitations – so it’s just Ayckbourn and his wife Heather Stoney, then! Appropriately, Ayckbourn was a radio drama producer for the BBC in Leeds from 1965-70, though the last time he acted was in Rotherham in 1964. In an acting career that spanned thirty years Heather’s appeared in Alan’s plays before, though she’s since been retired for just as many. From the comfort of their own home, the two trusty thespians now bravely tread the airwaves. Into the bargain, they supply a range of sound effects that change location, mood and pace, from music, birdsong, dripping tap, clink ‘n’ clatter to a barking Ruffles and noisy traffic. A final mix comes from Paul Stear. Yet another first for the 81-year-old writer is to both act in, and direct, one of his own plays. What’s that about old dogs and new tricks?
Bravo the writer! Bravo the cast! After settling in for a short while, it’s all splendidly done. This being Ayckbourn, the play is all about believable (even though largely stereotypical) characters and their relationships and interactions. Light, funny repartee is liberally sprinkled into a meaty, two-act drama that brings thought-provoking revelations, confessions, regrets and twists that are, at times, poignantly moving. Hope, thankfully, does just prevail, and elements of intrigue sustain till the end. Shining the spotlight, as ever, on the universal flaws, failings and idiosyncrasies that plague us human beings, confusion, self-deception, misunderstandings, misjudgements and misinterpretations abound, while humour springs as well from juxtapositions of them from Up North with posh Southerners, and of the old and traditional with the young and modern.
The couple, who have acted together in the past, take on four roles apiece, conveying with voice-pitch and accent alone characters youthful, middle-aged and old. Forgetful, grunty, world-weary old retired barrister Ben, and his brusque, crotchety, complaining, former magistrate wife Ella particularly spring to life. Also playing the couple’s son and daughter Martha and Sam, their partners Craig and Milly, a young waitress called Cinny and grandson Raymond/Raz, means that when any two females or males converse, Alan and Heather must talk to themselves. It works.
All kicks off when silver wedding anniversary celebrations are in the offing for architect Sam and solicitor wife Milly, because also in the offing is a surprise announcement that throws the beliefs, convictions and relationships of all of them into a nose-diving spin. In a domino effect they all start to totter as they question their present, their futures and the past, and we decide which of their viewpoints is closest the truth.
Ayckbourn readily admits the real excitement and spontaneity of live performance can be fully enjoyed only at the theatre: online streaming just doesn’t cut the mustard. He’s looking forward to better times when the play can take to the theatre as intended. But desperate times call for creative measures. He claims this “labour of love” was created by merely “mucking about in the living room”. It works brilliantly and there’s plenty of substance to it. Would we could all muck about so productively!
Eileen Caiger Gray
The Play streams for four weeks on www.sjt.uk.com. It’s free but donations are welcome.
Main image – playwright Alan Ayckbourn and his wife Heather Stoney.