Well who’d have thought it?
I know Alan Ayckbourn has tackled sci-fi before but never like this, never on this scale. This is Ayckbourn without the jokes. Sentimental, even – finally – optimistic. And epic in every way.
The Divide (Old Vic) runs at nearly four hours long. I’d read the reviews beforehand and was prepared, secretly, to duck out at the interval. The fact that I didn’t is more a credit to the production and the players than the play.
In Ayckbourn’s future-world men and women live separately on either side of the ‘Divide’, as women pass on a deadly plague to the men. Procreation is by artificial insemination and the typical family group is a MaMa, a MaPa and kids. For some reason the women wear long black dresses and caps, seemingly uncomplainingly. (The puritan look has become a right cliché in sci-fi – cf The Handmaid’s Tale.) Mirrors are banned. Boys are removed from the family home when they reach puberty and wear white.
To be honest, I quickly stopped asking myself questions about the premise behind the play because absolutely none of it made sense to me, and the central doomed romance is totally predictable. What I did love about it was the production itself: director Annabel Boulton, designer Laura Hopkins, lighting David Plater, music especially composed by Christopher Nightingale (wonderfully appropriate name) and a live chorus of 26. Not to mention the performances, most notably from Erin Doherty, who narrates the entire story to us and is barely off the stage, and her on-stage brother played by Jake Davies. The rest of the large and almost all-female cast are hard to distinguish since they are identically dressed, but pretty faultless throughout.
The final message is both trite and uncharacteristically optimistic from a man who made his name slicing through the facades of everyday relationships. Astonishing.
The production – which closes tonight, February 10th – has been running for just ten days. I may not have gone for the play itself but there is something marvellous about the fact that it is on at all. Whatever else he is doing Ayckbourn is not playing it safe in his older age.
© Patsy Trench
London February 2018