Alan Ayckbourn’s early hit is now an astonishing 36 years old, but long exposure to its title has failed to illuminate any obvious connection with the play itself.
Apparently it was borrowed from another play which Ayckbourn didn’t get round to writing. This one could easily have been called Season’s Greetings, a title he later used for another play about the stresses of Christmas.
Three couples meet on successive Christmas Eves, each of the three acts being set in the kitchen of one of their houses.
This triptych, which necessitates two intervals for set-changes, charts the rise of the oily and initially obsequious Sidney, a small-time property developer, who begins by trying to ingratiate himself with bank manager Ronald and architect Geoffrey, and ends with them literally dancing to his tune.
Sidney’s wife Jane is obsessed with housework, Geoffrey’s wife Eva is cast into depression by his womanising, and Ronald’s wife Marion is an alcoholic.
With these early 1970s fashions and interior design, Ayckbourn has finally crossed the line from contemporary to period drama. His acute eye for the minutiae of suburban mores means that this is now a social document, as well as being extremely funny.
He is at his most masterly in the middle act, basically an ingeniously sustained sight-gag where the various attempts by the now catatonic Eva to commit suicide are misinterpreted by her guests. Maybe we are less ready to find mental illness a source of hilarity than we were 30 years ago, but while the general impression is that Ayckbourn’s comedy has darkened over the years, Absurd Person Singular shows that it was always the thin ice covering the abyss – as the bleak final act makes clear.
This touring production with Matthew Cottle and Sara Crowe as the upwardly-mobile Sidney and Jane pulls the levers effectively. It’s not the sharpest or funniest I’ve seen, but it does leave you in no doubt that this is a classic.
* Running time: Two hours, 35 minutes. Until Saturday. Also at the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, from Monday to Saturday next week.