Review: Improbable Fiction – Pitlochry Festival Theatre

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First published in The Times, June 9 2015

Three Stars

As the writer of nearly 80 full-length plays, there can’t be much Alan Ayckbourn does not know about the creative process. The thrill of letting the imagination run riot is at the heart of his 2005 play Improbable Fiction – a theme he explores through the dreams and frustrations of a motley rural creative writing circle, led by the mild-mannered Arnold (Ronnie Simon).

In a play of two distinct halves, the opening act, in which we meet the disparate characters in Arnold’s group, and learn of their quirks and neuroses, seems a straightforward paean to the therapeutic power of creativity. While Arnold longs to exchange the dry instruction manuals that have become his bread and butter for something more inspirational, mousey Grace (Helen Logan) takes refuge from an unhappy home life in writing and illustrating children’s stories chronicling the adventures of Doblin the Goblin.

Other members of the group battle, variously, writer’s block and excessive productivity. While Jess (Kathryn Martin) struggles to get her gothic romance off the ground, Vivvi (Emma Odell) churns out numerous unread volumes of her 1930s detective series and Clem (Gavin Swift) tears through his X-Files-style sci-fi novel, despite an uncertain command of the English language.

IF_Ronnie Simon_Gavin Swift_act20101

Pic: Douglas McBride

So far so sitcom, but, as you would expect from Ayckbourn, the play’s action doesn’t unfold in predictable ways. As the creative writing group departs into the night, the play takes a turn for the audaciously theatrical as fictional worlds explode into the isolated house Arnold shares with his ailing mother.

It is in this feverishly paced second act that Clare Prenton’s production is at its most enjoyable, with the well-choreographed Pitlochry ensemble cast getting full value out of an array of stock characters, as overlapping vignettes play out on Frances Collier’s atmospheric country house set.

Yet, while the playwright’s send-up of popular fictional genres is mostly on the mark, it is hard to ignore the fact that Improbable Fiction is something of a one-joke play, with the laughs wearing increasingly thin as the running time wears on. Moreover, with an opening act that is short on movement and heavy on exposition we’re left waiting a tad too long for the second act payoff.

There are compensations in some of the performances, notably Simon’s decent, increasingly baffled Arnold and Logan, a Pitlochry regular, enjoying herself in an array of wildly divergent roles. On the whole, though, this determinedly light confection pales in comparison to Ayckbourn’s early, multi-layered works such as A Chorus of Disapproval and Woman in Mind.

Box office: 01796 484626, to October 17. pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com

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