‘Fiction’ in Review

It’s late and I really should not be hunched the computer at this time on a Sunday night..er..Monday morning, but here I am nonetheless, and it has been an interesting evening. I was present at a gathering of the Committee earlier and it really is no understatement that there are some exciting events ahead, all of which will be appearing on the blog at some point or other over the next few months. The recent past, however, was a significant point of discussion, most notably the highly successful ‘Improbable Fiction’. And, as is typical when a show comes to an end, it is always nice to reflect with a few words and pictures. If you saw the show then the pictures above may raise a smile or two or stir a warm memory of the events on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th July. And if you didn’t you might be wondering just what in the name of the saints was going on?!! You missed a good one. And I am grateful again to Steve Williams who once more stepped in to review the show.Thus, I’ll leave you to his words but will be back on here sometime very soon to wind things up before the summer lull kicks in. And now I ought to go, I have to be up in four hours, fifty five minutes! Until next time.

Over a fifty-six year and 79-play career, Alan Ayckbourn has proven himself to be one of the world’s most enduring and successful playwrights. His success is predicated on his ability to observe the ordinary and make it extraordinary, to take a group of average, everyday people and place them into a slightly twisted reality but retaining the honesty of the character and the integrity of normal life. His plays, therefore, follow a similar formula – after all why would you change such a successful technique? Ayckbourn tends to spend the first half of his plays creating a certain situation and atmosphere before, more often than not, unleashing chaos on an unsuspecting audience in the second half. ‘Improbable Fiction’ sticks rigidly to this tried and tested formula, but is no less amusing or surprising because of it.

Act 1 introduces us to the setting, a large living room in a large, old house complete with a batty, bed-ridden old mother hidden in her room upstairs – unseen – but with the occasional bangs on the ceiling a constant reminder of her presence. The play, on this occasion, is set in the round and we the audience surround a circle of chairs being set up by Arnold as he prepares for the imminent regular meeting of the writing group that he chairs. Arnold has boundless enthusiasm for his writing group, he is after all the only professional writer amongst the group – albeit his writing is limited to the creation of instruction manuals… pass bolt 3 through hole A and screw into nut ! His last attempt at livening up his meetings resulted in chaos when the guest turned out to be an incomprehensible, unknown, boring author who left everyone else more than a little underwhelmed.

Mike Savill played Arnold brilliantly cajoling, encouraging, berating and motivating his group of aspiring writers according to their needs. His comic timing was, as ever, perfect and his bemusement and confusion throughout the second half was utterly believable.

Ilsa, carer for Arnold’s mother and shop assistant, was played by Cally Challenger-Francis. Her infatuation with the older Arnold was palpable to all – except Arnold of course who had no idea about her desire for him. Cally was very good as Ilsa with some delightful touches in her performance though occasionally, largely owing to the acoustics, it could be difficult to understand what was being said and I found myself missing some of her best lines as a result.Still a marvelous return to the stage for Cally and hopefully more will be seen of her in future shows.

Over the rest of the first act we are introduced to the rest of the eclectic mix of characters. Jess, the lesbian farmer, was wonderfully played by Kay Isom. Jess is the writer in most of us, full of wonderful ideas but unable to put them down on paper. She starts, but never gets further than the first few pages in part because it is “perfect” in her head but it loses that perfection when she writes it down. Jess is desperate to write romantic fiction and one got the impression that her private life may have been the block to her romantic ideals. Kay was excellent as Jess showing her desperation to write and her frustration at not being able to.

As the battered housewife and would-be children’s author, Grace, Helen Roffey displayed a wonderful understanding of the comedic potential of her character. Grace has started work on her illustrated children’s story; her only problem is that she has the pictures and the characters but not the story! Dot Pullan was equally assured as the local journalist and, let’s be honest, cougar who has just started work on yet another novel – much to the other’s chagrin. Two fine performances.

James Mercer played the monosyllabic council worker and would-be science fiction author, Clem. Some of the funniest moments in this play came from Clem proudly reading his work aloud without realising he was using the wrong words to describe certain situations. James is a fine actor and he delivered some wonderful comic moments with aplomb and ‘magnanimititude’.

The final participant in the writers’ group was the retired teacher, Brevis, played by the ever-reliable John Mackintosh. Brevis first appears having been delayed by an airless tyre on his bicycle. He had discovered that it was some of his former pupils who had released the air from the tyre deliberately and he burst into the room full of fire and brimstone having realised that he actually hated children and had wasted his entire career! Worse still, the composer of the music for his latest musical had disappeared and wasn’t answering Brevis’ calls. John gave, as always, a fine performance full of bluff, bluster and vigour.

And so the scene was set for the meeting to begin. Each character in their turn discussed their hopes fears and tribulations as they struggled to write their masterpiece. Until Arnold suggests that they could all perhaps overcome their particular version of writer’s block by collaborating on a story as a group.

Act 2 is a traditional whacky Ayckbourn second half where confusion reigns, particularly for poor, hapless Arnold who finds himself at the centre of all of his writing group’s own stories. Unfortunately, I found the second half was something of a letdown compared to the first. I must stress, however, that this was a fault in the writing rather than the performances. All the individual stories were acted out around Arnold who was ever more befuddled by what he was seeing and inadvertently a part of. Mike’s performance in the second act was even better than the first as his bewilderment and confusion grew. My issue with the second act was what I consider to be a missed opportunity by Mr Ayckbourn. To my mind it would have been funnier for the historical romance characters to be spouting some of the science fiction lines and vice versa. I felt that keeping the stories all separate meant that some comedy opportunities were lost. As I say, this was a writing problem (take note Mr Ayckbourn!) rather than anything to do with the production and I thought that there were some great performances and some very amusing moments throughout. It was just a shame that the actors did not have better material with which to work.

Victoria Pearce directed the play very well I thought. It is a difficult first act to choreograph when performed in the round (or with an extreme thrust stage to be more accurate) as the cast tend to remain relatively static, but I never felt I lost anything from any of the performers as a result of their positioning. The second act was handled very well by the director and everyone kept up a very good pace despite having to run around like mad to be on time and in the right costume for their next entrance. Everything backstage worked very well with a very good use of lights and sound effects and the costumes, particularly in the second act, were all well thought out and added to the overall look of the play.

Despite my reservations about the writing I thoroughly enjoyed my evening at Matchbox as did the rest of the audience and we all left with a smile on our faces. Which is after all what we all wanted from an evening with Alan Ayckbourn.