“This is the first time that I’ve written a play with a house as the central character,” says Alan Ayckbourn of his new comedy, A Brief History of Women. In his 81st play, Ayckbourn transports us across 60 years – a nod to this being his 60th year at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, perhaps?
The play is about the women who revolve around the only character to appear in each segment, Anthony Spates, played wonderfully by Antony Eden. It shines a light on the roles and obstacles faced by women through the ages, and the positioning of men in relation to power. It all sounds a bit dry and problematic, preachy even, but true to form Ayckbourn makes it a rattling rollercoaster of sentimentality, wit and humour.
Ayckbourn is well-seasoned, he’s a woodworker, a lathe turner of plays and people. Like a musician he tunes the audience, winding strings until the tension is just too much, before letting it snap back in a raucous celebration of comedy and pantomime.
The play is in four parts, each covering a different era in Spates’s life. Each chunk of play has a slightly different feel partly due to the era it’s set in, and partly to showcase the varying styles of theatre and of women – it’s a sort of celebration of 60 years’ worth of acting styles and female representation. It has the feel of looking through several windows into the same room, where the light falls on the same furniture, only slightly differently. And in effect, it is. The house, Kirkbridge Manor, is an extra character in the play, gathering the ghosts of abuse, love, sex, joy, tears and grief, repeatedly luring back Spates.
As well as the actors and the house, the scene changers are another version of theatre: mime artists. I won’t spoil it by giving away details but I watched the audience’s response as they came in and out between scenes, dressed in the clothes of the next scene’s era, deftly unhooking, rolling, lifting, folding furniture and flooring, knowing exactly what went where and when. The mostly older audience had the delighted smiles of kids at Christmas. How often does a set change get a laugh? Kevin Jenkins, who designed the set, excelled himself.
Eden is brilliantly suited to the role of Spates. He plays awkward social moments beautifully and is genuinely funny and moving. I should also mention Russell Dixon who manages to switch between roles and accents without any problem. His performance as the pantomime dame is magical. But considering this is a play about women’s roles, the female characters are rather flat. This could of course be deliberate, a nod to the two-dimensional women throughout history. After all, a man’s view of women in history will, perhaps, never quite encompass what it is to be a woman. Maybe Ayckbourn is saying that women have never been given the chance to have four dimensions? Personally, I would have liked to have seen a bit more meat about the characters, more chance for the female actors to shine.
The play also seems a little uneven in style and quality. All four segments, as I’ve mentioned, are played differently and the audience’s response changes in reaction to each one. The first part is drama with a capital D – though it does have humour – but the second part is weirdly comic book-like. The extreme silliness of the story line was out of place, especially when it was slid snugly against scene three which is a funny, gently moving, sweet act. The fourth, and last, part fizzles out a little. I don’t think the ending quite hits the spot, but it is funny. A Brief History of Women comes smoothly to a stop having circled the house several times.
In all, I enjoyed the play, though I do think it was trying to contain too much. Oh, and keep an eye out for the little details, the bust in particular.
A Brief History of Women is on at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough until Oct 7, 2017. For more information, or to book tickets, click here.