A Brief History Of Women, New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-Under-Lyme - review with pictures
In the foyer at The New Vic an exhibition on the early days of theatre-in-the-round includes a poster for Alan Ayckbourn’s first play The Square Cat, best tickets in the house priced five shillings (25p).
Fifty-nine years and more than eighty plays later, tickets for A Brief History of Women cost a little more but remain excellent value for money.
The play gives a moving account of the effect of time on the life of a particular building, Kirkbridge Manor, and an “ordinary man”, Tony Spates, who has worked in it.
He won his first kiss there from the lady of the manor as a young servant; “fraternised unhealthily” with a fellow teacher when it was a boarding school; found comfort as the hind-end of a pantomime cow while managing it as a community arts centre; and arrives finally at a serene peace with the disappointments in his life in its final role as a luxury hotel.
The structure of the play demonstrates Ayckbourn’s perennial sense of invention and ambition – “I think this is the first time I’ve written a play with a house as the central character” – while giving rein to his celebrated skills.
He handles the technicalities of multiple scenes on stage at once with aplomb. He gives us a variety of female characters, played cleverly by the same three actors, who reflect dexterously the changing mores of the times. And he builds an emotional intensity almost without us noticing, punctuating it periodically with laugh-out-loud humour.
“Everyone needs a bit of laughter now and then,” we’re told after earnest socialist Rory blows his top “like one of those new pressure cookers” during a panto rehearsal in the Kirkbridge Arts Centre. And boy does Ayckbourn, and star turn Russell Dixon as the camp dame, give us some.
It’s pure indulgence on both their part and ours, as we instantly get in role as a panto audience.
Meanwhile Antony Eden as Tony is steadily winning our hearts with his “ordinary” progression through life.
His body language speaks of disappointment, loss, and the wearing passage of time but his behaviour is always decent and dignified, and when opportunity does come knocking, he answers the door.
And is the house realised as the central character? Well, no. The house with three floors on one in Ayckbourn’s farce Taking Steps, also playing now, makes a stronger claim in my view. We don’t get a sense of Kirkbridge Manor’s geography until it’s time to lock up in the third of the four scenes. Its most affecting characteristic is its broken boiler, finally fixed the in last scene.
I’d rather see that as a metaphor for ordinary Tony, who is of course at the core of it all.
By John Hargreaves