Favourite Things: Absurd Person Singular

This is the big one – one of the most significant works within the Ayckbourn play canon.

Absurd Person Singular is one of the most acclaimed Ayckbourn works – regularly featuring in Top 100 plays of the 20th century lists – and undoubtedly one of his most popular.

It premiered at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, on 26 June 1972 and continues to be revived around the world to this day. It is regarded as the first of Alan’s tragic-comic works and the plot of an aspirational couple climbing the social ladder at the expense of their peers has long been viewed as a prescient view of the UK during the late 1970s.

Within the Ayckbourn Archive we also reach a point where more material was being stored for posterity. This is a recognition that Alan was now firmly established as a successful playwright and director – and during the same year would become the Artistic Director of the Library Theatre. As a result, from this point forwards, the Ayckbourn Archive begins to offer a wider selection of interesting historical pieces.

Alan Ayckbourn’s pencil notes for Absurd Person Singular
(© Haydonning Ltd)

The first is one of the earliest surviving original notes relating to the creation of an Ayckbourn play. Within the Borthwick Institure for Archives at the University of York, there exists the first complete hand-written first draft of an Ayckbourn play; a true treasure trove waiting to be explored by a future researcher or student as it might well offer an insight into the convoluted conception of the play. Given Alan Ayckbourn’s near impenetrable handwriting, it’s just something no-one has attempted yet! The piece reproduced here though shows Alan’s thumbnail sketches for the layout of the sets. As conceived, the play was set in three sitting rooms over three Christmases. But having begun writing them, Alan realised the more interesting action was taking place ‘off-stage’ in the kitchen and moved the play to there – thereby also giving a reason to keep the horrendous and verbose creations Dick & Lottie Potter out of sight! These sketches are for the kitchens and their in-the-round layout for the Library Theatre alongside some introductory notes for Act 1, scene 1 of the play.

The flyer image for the world premiere of Absurd Person Singular at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1972.
(© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

At the time, the Library Theatre was still confined to just summer seasons on the first floor of Scarborough’s public library. There was no press office of such and marketing was basic to say the least. From 1955 to 1971, programmes covers had been generic and posters were essentially information driven (title, director, actors, dates etc) without any images. In 1972, the theatre began to create promotional images for flyers, if not for the programmes, and the accompanying image is regarded as the first time an Ayckbourn world premiere had a ‘poster’. The image was created by a linocut process and is actually quite a nice image given the limited resources and budget for the theatre at the time – I’ve certainly seen a lot worse designs over the years! This exists on just a single flyer in the Ayckbourn Archive and is rarely seen.

Brochure copy for the world premiere of Absurd Person Singular at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1972.
(© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

The Library Theatre’s season brochures from the 1970s are quite interesting too given they were almost always produced well in advance of Alan Ayckbourn actually writing his play for the season – and apparently often before he’d even finished formulating the idea. As a result, brochure copy from the 1970s through to the 1980s is generally as vague as possible for the latest Ayckbourn play. This extract from the 1972 Library Theatre brochure amply demonstrates this with absolutely no context for what Absurd Person Singular will be about. It’s also slightly worrying that Alan is credited as having been with the theatre for over 12 years – it’s close to 15 years by this point! Someone was not paying attention. It’s worth saying the title also, of course, offers no insight nor what to expect. Alan’s play-titles have always been ambiguous to the point where Absurd Person Singular was the title for an entirely different but discarded play idea – As a result, the title literally has nothing to do with the play!

A publicity shot from the world premiere of Absurd Person Singular at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1972.
(© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

We’ve also got a nice publicity image from the original production here – it’s noticeable that from this point in time, the publicity images start to become more professional and better composed. Although no record is held in the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s Archives, it’s not inconceivable the publicity photographs were now being taken by a professional photographer rather than in-house. This photo captures the moment in the second act when Ronald manages to electrocute himself when changing the lightbulb that Eva doesn’t want to change. Ronald is played by the eponymous Ayckbourn actor Christopher Godwin; he played Leonard the pervious year in the world premiere of Time & Time Again and will create the role of Norman the following year for The Norman Conquests at the Library Theatre. It also offers a nice example of a set at the venue during the period and is worth comparing with the second of the thumbnail sketches above, which portrays the same kitchen.

Letter from Peter Hall to Alan Ayckbourn in 1973 held in the Ayckbourn Archive.
(© Peter Hall)

Absurd Person Singular transferred to London in 1973 and would go on to have the longest unbroken run of any Ayckbourn play in the West End to this day. This also marked the moment Alan came to the attention of Peter Hall, Artistic Director of the National Theatre and with whom Alan would forge a strong relationship over the decades ahead. The letter from Hall to Ayckbourn is held in the Ayckbourn Archive and is the first to suggest that Alan consider writing a play for the National Theatre. It would be four years before that came to fruition when Bedroom Farce opened in The Lyttelton at the NT, which would then lead to a considerable number productions during the 1970s and 1980s culminating in Alan becoming a Company Director for the NT for two years from 1986 to 1988. Peter Hall was always a great supporter of Alan and his writing and was responsible for the famous quote: “If, in a hundred years, anyone wants to know what it was like to live in the second half of the 20th century, I am quite sure they will turn to the plays of Alan Ayckbourn before they look at historians or sociologists. End-of-millennium-man is very accurately atomised in your plays.”

The breakdown of laughs during the Broadway production of Absurd Person Singular in 1974 held in the Ayckbourn Archive.

In 1974, Absurd Person Singular also transferred to Broadway – the second of Alan’s plays to do so after How the Other Half Loves – where it became the longest running Ayckbourn play to have ever been staged in New York. The transition to New York was not an easy one though and was beset by considerable difficulties ( the full story of which can be read here). The New York producers appear to have had little faith in the play – despite choosing to transfer the play over from London and wanted Alan to switch the second and third acts round as they did not appreciate the play ending on a dying fall! The fact the play would have made no sense seems to have been lost on the producers, who eventually made the threat they would alter the acts with or without Alan’s help; fortunately Alan has the formidable agent Margaret ‘Peggy’ Ramsay on his side who made short work of such ludicrous threats. Despite the great success of the play though, the producers never truly let it lay and at one point sent two people to count the laughs during the run of the play! This document, reprinted here, was then handed to Alan – for who knows what reason! Alan’s response was apparently to nod approvingly and thank them for confirming the play did indeed have a dying fall as he had hoped when he wrote it! Possibly not the intended reaction…

The subsequent success of the play in the UK, the USA and around the world has demonstrably proved Alan got the play right. It has been produced three times in the West End and will have its third major New York production this Christmas when Dick & Lottie theatre company makes its New York debut with the play at Theater Row (further details of which can be found here). It is a classic Ayckbourn play and one of the great achievements of British 20th century playwriting.

One comment

  1. Wonderful memories. My very first Alan Ayckbourn play – what an introduction. I went and saw the London production with Sheila Hancock and Richard Briers and was so captivated that I went again – and insisted on taking the rest of my family. Many years later I got to direct it. It’s still one of the greats.


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