Summer at the Unicorn, a glass of wine in the Long Gallery, and an excellent production of Alan Ayckbourn's "Improbable Fiction" brought to us by the Abingdon Drama Club, most ably directed by Keith Hales, all combined to give us a splendid evening.
The play seems at first sight to be a work of two halves. In the first act the characters, all members of the Pendon Writers' Circle are meeting in the home of good-natured Arnold. He is helped by Ilsa whose function is to make coffee for the meeting and to look after Arnold's bedridden mother. He isn't really creative, but writes instruction manuals in plain English. There's Jess, a lesbian farmer, who is bogged down in her research into Victorian customs but can't get started on writing her melodrama. Vivvi, a journalist, on the other hand, can't stop and is currently on her sixth novel, all unpublished, featuring a detective and his hapless sidekick, who is, of course, in love with him. Clem, a council worker, writes science fiction which is rendered almost incomprehensible by his malapropisms. Brevis, a retired schoolteacher, is stuck waiting for his musical partner to write more lyrics for their musical based on "The Pilgrim's Progress."And then there's Grace proudly showing her drawings of Doblin the Goblin. One day she might just manage to write words to go with the story. They snipe at each other's lack of progress and yet have few ideas on how to progress. Arnold comes up with a plan to move them on. They should pool resources and write a collaborative work. There is little enthusiasm for this idea. But as the first act ends the direction changes abruptly and fiction comes to life as fact.
The second act has us travelling through each writer's "improbable fiction" with Arnold caught up into Jess's Victorian melodrama, Vivvi's 30's thriller complete with poetry-loving detective and love-sick sergeant and Clem's crazy science fiction embellished with more of his malapropisms. Arnold, at first bewildered, as indeed we are, seems to realise what's going and so do we. What we are seeing is the bringing to life of the creations outlined in the writers' meeting in the first act. Clichés and stereotypical characters bound through the three main stories, back and forth in time, a concept cleverly signalled by the appearance and disappearance of a phone, sometimes modern, sometimes of the candlestick variety. It all builds to a wonderful finale with the entire cast complete with Doblin the Goblin singing along to Brevis's still unfinished musical.
The cast was uniformly excellent throughout the two acts and their skill in the lightning changes and swift character swaps of the second act was hugely impressive. Without that sort of skill the complicated plot could have fallen flat on its face. But it didn't. Because of the actors' ability we quickly got the joke and so could enjoy every twist and turn of those complications.
John Hawkins was ideally cast as Arnold Hassock. He came over as a thoroughly good man, anxious to help everyone. In the second act, where he has little to say, he skilfully remained the pivotal character through his wide range of gesture and facial expressions, something that is very hard to get right when your character is silent.
Gemma Kitching's Ilsa was very well played, particularly in the subtle way she let us know that she rather fancied the oblivious Arnold. It may be a relatively minor part but Gemma played it with skill and authority.
Lynne Smith as Jess was perfect. Again, her facial expressions were particularly good as she commented, silently, on the work of others. At first, she played Jess as a hard, somewhat unfeeling woman, who certainly didn't suffer fools gladly. But as she prepared to leave the meeting, she introduced a softer note as she told Arnold that she felt a fraud. In the second act she gave her role as Victorian narrator a pleasing nod to the Wilkie Collins school of storytelling A wonderful performance in all its variety of moods and scenes.
Geraldine McTier as Grace played her character's shyness beautifully, mixing it skilfully with Grace's extraordinary confidence that Doblin the Goblin really had a future. Her physical shrinking as her dreaded old school teacher came in enhanced our image of Grace as somehow not quite gown-up. Geraldine brought out most skilfully Grace's little quirks.
Vivvi, played admirably by Laura King, is a hard role to take on, because Vivvi is not particularly likeable. She is irritating with her laugh, her talking in front of Ilsa as if she wasn't there and her confidence in her never-ending stream of writing. In the second act Laura brought her silly sergeant beautifully to life. It was a big role and it was steered through its complications excellently.
Andrew Down as Clem was quite remarkable in the range of roles he gave us. From the moment he first spoke in that strangled "geek" voice we were laughing. His misuse of the English language was never overplayed so that his genuine bewilderment that he'd got it wrong again, came through as totally realistic. The roles he played in the second act were extraordinary in their skilful diversity. Andrew's depiction of the horrible nephew was truly scary, so much so that we felt almost relieved when he came on as the alien hunter, potty, but harmless! His range of voices and facial expressions added to this outstanding performance.
Nigel Tait as Brevis Winterton played his anger at the world perfectly. He managed to make us all believe in the schoolteacher we have all been scared of and then, somehow, Nigel cleverly softened him into a character we began to sympathise with. It is a mark of a good acting to alter the audience's perception of a character. His second act character was equally well played.
This was a strong cast, admirably directed by Keith Hales and backed up by an equally strong and dedicated crew. The set, by Keith Hales and Malcolm Ross beautifully suggested the mock Tudor house, but their real tour de force was the panelling through which the phones magically, swiftly and silently appeared and disappeared. Jane Cadogan managed a huge wardrobe perfectly, each swift costume change signalling a change of direction. The whole team had clearly worked very hard and with true dedication to bring the audience a very good evening indeed.
The monthly meeting of an amateur creative writers' circle is the setting for this Alan Ayckbourn comedy, performed by Abingdon Drama Club at the Unicorn Theatre. One by one, the members arrive at the home of earnest, well-meaning Arnold Hassock (John Hawkins), preceded by the attractive young Ilsa (Gemma Kitching), who is there to care for Arnold's elderly, bedridden mother. Each member has his or her own problems. There is Jess (Lynne Smith), whose historical romances are all in her head, Vivvi (Laura King), a prolific but unpublished writer of crime fiction and Clem (Andrew Down), a nerdy creator of science fiction, who believes his creations to be true and who constantly misuses words. Middle-aged, mumsy Grace (Geraldine McTier) has only got as far as illustrating her children's story, and the cynical, disillusioned, retired school teacher, Brevis (Nigel Tait), is trying to write a musical version of "Pilgrim's Progress" but has only four lines of lyrics. These seven very distinctive characters are well cast and interact skilfully with each other.
At the end of Act One, as the meeting ends and the members leave, a clap of thunder and sudden darkness heralds a surprise for Arnold and the audience. The scene changes completely, while the setting remains, apparently, Arnold's home. He finds himself, successively, in a Victorian melodrama, a 1920's detective novel and a tale of alien abductions. The original Act One cast play all the new roles and their skills at portraying different characters and using a variety of accents, not to mention the slick costume changes, are extremely impressive. The scenery and props are very well managed and watch out for the telephone. As the three playlets finally resolve themselves, the children's story and the musical are cleverly brought in. The last line of the play is classic Ayckbourn understatement.
This was an extremely good performance of an entertaining but challenging play and the audience thoroughly enjoyed it.
Ed - Daily Info - 03/07/08