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REVIEW: Absurd Person Singular at the Bear Pit, 10th to 18 December 2021

Absurd Person Singular should perhaps come with a warning: ingredients may cause decreased gaiety and Chrimbo cynicism.

It is set during the early 1970s over three successive Christmas Eves in the kitchens of three couples and divided into three acts. Very much prime Alan Ayckbourn territory, the play, written in 1975, follows the changing fortunes of the characters while exposing the foibles of the age and the hapless humans under our scrutiny.

Paul and Viv Tomlinson as the Hopcrofts. Photo: Patrick Baldwin
Paul and Viv Tomlinson as the Hopcrofts. Photo: Patrick Baldwin

While not exactly ho ho ho, the play is perhaps perfect fodder for the Bear Pit Theatre Company. The company earned its Ayckbourn stripes with the superb The Norman Conquests early last year, on the cusp of Covid lockdown numero uno. So it seems apt, if not a little jinksy, to return to bat with more from the master satirist of middle-class manners.

There are three couples, so six juicy erring humans for the cast to get their chops round. And really, under the experienced hand of director Vanessa Comer, the tremendous characterisation going on make this production excellent entertainment.

Set in the round, the three acts take place in the separate kitchens of the couples. You can tell a lot about a couple by their kitchen. The trio of acts kicks off with ‘Last Christmas’ where the kitchen has Formica tops and a new state-of-the-art washing machine. Yup, they are – quelle horreur - what used to be called nouveau riche. The offending kitchen belongs to Sidney Hopcroft, an ambitious tradesman, and his submissive wife Jane - played with aplomb by Paul and Viv Tomlinson. We meet them as they prepare to host a social-climbing event thinly disguised as a drinks party. It is a disaster… with Jane’s ill-fated dash to the off licence for tonic in the rain is a particular tragicomic delight.

Their guests are: well-heeled banker and snobby wife Ronald and Marion Brewster-Wright – played with relish and vim by Graham Buckingham-Underhill and Lesley Simms; and architect and lothario Geoff Jackson and his pill-popping angst-ridden wife Eva, again spot-on performances from Peter Ward and Kathy Buckingham-Underhill.

Over the course of the next two years things unravel for some of the characters in quite surprising and depressing ways, but always with a deliciously dark comic underbelly. There’s a sort of Chekovian despair that hovers over the lives of those before us. Eva’s suicide attempts are continually mistaken for some other antic in the second act, while Marion’s alcoholism adds extra cringe in the third – with both actors really excelling in these moments.

Pace-wise things could have been turned up a notch, and wasn’t helped by having two intervals between the acts and seemed unnecessary.

But that aside, this play is a sort of dour delight – reminiscent perhaps of many family Christmases, where expectation is undercut by reality and quibbles, quarrels and excess don’t always bring out the best in people.

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