Epic Ayckbourn

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.


Erin Doherty (programme cover)

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



The ageing process

First it was the Best Marigold Hotel, now it’s the BBC television series Last Tango in Halifax and two films about to appear on our screens, Song for Marion and Quartet (directed by Dustin Hoffman).


As I write this the best selling Kindle ebook in the UK is Thursdays in the Park, about a woman in her sixties embarking on an extra-marital affair.  All of these feature old people – that’s to say pensioners – and if there is a slightly patronising quaintness underlying most of them all it’s in the surprising notion that anyone over sixty is still able to do anything other than eat, breathe, sleep and walk about a bit.

However the good news is that two famous elders are about to star together in the West End (well, Waterloo) in Much Ado About Nothing. Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones  – last seen together in Driving Miss Daisy – will be playing Beatrice and Benedick at the Old Vic in 2013, directed by Mark Rylance. The wonderful thing about this is that these parts were obviously not written for actors in their seventies and eighties (respectively), and the play is not about old age but love, which – as anyone over or under sixty will readily admit – can hit you in the face at any time in your life.

Redgrave and Earl Jones (times.co.uk)

Redgrave and Earl Jones (times.co.uk)

Two years ago another elder, Judi Dench, played Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Rose Theatre, to much acclaim. Sian Phillips, also in her seventies, played Juliet in Juliet and Her Romeo at the Bristol Old Vic, opposite Michael Byrne (in his sixties) as Romeo. I didn’t see either of these productions unfortunately, but to quote Michael Billington: ‘Like Judi Dench, she [Phillips] defies time and knows how to weight every syllable to communicate meaning.’ (Guardian review, 17 March 2010).

Bernhardt (wikipedia)

Sarah Siddons by Gainsborough (wikipedia)

Sarah Siddons by Gainsborough (wikipedia)

It’s not just now that actors have kept going into their later years. Sarah Bernhardt kept performing, on stage and screen, pretty well up until her death at the age of 79, for the last part of her life with one leg. Sarah Siddons, commonly regarded as the best actress ever to grace a stage and described by Hazlitt as ‘Tragedy personified’ also kept going until – this time in Hazlitt’s regretful view – she had lost the energy and vitality of her younger years. (She retired in her fifties).

If the Rolling Stones can still do it in their seventies then that is reason enough to celebrate!


On another topic altogether, I’m pleased to see new indoor theatre at the Globe is to be named after the American actor Sam Wanamaker – sole founder and inspiration behind the entire Globe project. I may be wrong but I believe this is a change from calling it the Inigo Jones theatre (after the 16th/17th century architect and set designer). Wanamaker died before the theatre was completed but his place was taken at its opening by his actress daughter Zoe. The theatre will open in 2014. For more details click here.

Sam Wanamaker (visitbankside.com)