Mike Tilling, Arts Correspondent
The Constant Companions Alan Ayckbourn
With a writing career in the theatre that stretches back to 1957, it is unsurprising that Alan Ayckbourn has built up a substantial body of work, but I ask you, eighty-nine plays? And yes, he can still pack ‘em in. The creativity and stamina are phenomenal.
His new play, to some extent, covers ground already explored in the 1987 production Henceforward
. However, the similarities are only superficial, dealing, as both do, with a vision of eroding human control and the gradually increasing hegemony of androids. One of the things that Ayckbourn has always been good at is the capacity to incorporate current debates, such as the threat of AI, into action on stage.
from left, Leigh Symonds, Naomi Petersen, Andy Cryer
The stage is divided into three acting spaces: Don’s bedroom, Lorraine’s hi-tech office, and an indeterminate area, possibly an attic, where the android ED is stored. Both androids are consistent in their inability to lie, their forthrightness, and their curiosity about human illogicality. The humans are anything but uniform in temperament or outlook. This is one of the many variations on the theme of contrasts.
As we watch the drama unfold, we see the connections between each scenario, except for the most significant, which is saved for the very last moment.
(L-R)Leigh Symonds, Naomi Petersen
In his flat, Don (SJT favourite Andy Cryer) is unpacking his android ‘companion’. He has chosen the one with the largest breasts because they were on ‘special offer’. The body is in pieces, so Don calls his techie friend Winston (Leigh Symonds) for advice. Meanwhile, Winston is servicing the malfunctioning ED (Naomi Peterson). It seems that the son of the family has fallen in love with ED, and Winston has been called in to rectify her (its?) emotional circuits. Because of the son’s attachment to ED, he and his mother Andrea (Tanya Loretta-Dee) are due for an interview with counsellor Lorraine (Alexandra Mathie), thus completing the circuit of the three settings.
Georgia Burnell, Alexandra Mathie
The foundation for an Ayckbourn play is the conviction that people are essentially funny; they are also sad; kind yet cruel; humble yet arrogant; and so on. On these antimonies, the structure begins to rise. Level by level, the plot proceeds until we reach a climax that illuminates all that has gone before and we see the construction in its entirety. The final moments of Constant Companions continue these contradictions when we see a gesture that is both threatening and tender. I have not always been convinced by the denouements of Ayckbourn plays, but this one is understated and perfect.
There are a number of moments that still draw the audience into admiration. Winston, thinking he is talking to an automaton, relates how his life has failed. In this part of the play, the audience is suspecting that ED is a little more sentient than she appears.
Equally impressive is the evolution of Jan 60 (Richard Stacey) from a baffled android servant to a near (but not quite) human being and husband for Lorraine. Of course, humans decline and fall; for example, Lorraine descends into Alzheimer's, while the androids remain unchanged. Occasionally, change is good for humans. Lorraine’s personal assistant, Sylvia (Georgia Burnell), for instance, grows from harassed office serf to confident executive.
Alan Ayckbourn continues to be one of our most ambitious and engaging playwrights. Clearly, he has the right line-up on stage, ably supported by the creative team.
Plenty of laughs, but also much to think about.
(L-R)Richard Stacey, Alexandra Mathie
Constant Companions can be seen in the Round at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough until Saturday 7 October. Tickets are available from the SJT box office on 01723 370541 and online at www.sjt.uk.com
It then tours to
The Old Laundry Theatre, Bowness-on-Windermere (17 to 21 October)