First published in The Times, Monday July 10
A few lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, describing a world whose seasons are in disarray, perfectly encapsulate the experience of seeing theatre in Scotland at present: “The spring, the summer, the childing autumn, angry winter change their wonted liveries, and the mazèd world, by their increase, now knows not which is which.”
Not only is Pitlochry Festival Theatre currently staging Alan Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular, a play set over three consecutive Christmas Eves, the Tron’s summer show is a revival of Anthony Neilson’s The Lying Kind, whose farcical action unfolds against a backdrop of tinsel and holly wreaths.
For all their festive settings neither Ayckbourn’s nor Neilson’s plays is exactly life affirming. The three couples in Absurd Person Singular are uniformly unlikeable while Neilson’s hapless characters are essentially marionettes at the mercy of an increasingly anarchic scenario.
Pic: John Johnston
As with the greatest farce Neilson’s play begins with a misunderstanding. Two bumbling yet well-meaning policemen (played here by Michael Dylan and Martin McCormick) arrive at the home of an elderly couple on Christmas Eve to break the news that their daughter has been killed in a car crash. Due to a series of mix-ups and revelations the pair gradually backs away from the truth, only for their spinelessness and incompetence to unleash ever-greater havoc.
The additional presence of a cross-dressing minister, errant dogs and a pensioner with a penchant for exposing her backside means the show bears superficial resemblance to the lewd, elaborately ordered chaos of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off or Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw. Yet, unlike Orton’s masterpiece, which cocks a snoop at establishment hypocrisy, Neilson’s farce is concerned with little other than the nuts and bolts of the form itself.
Pic: John Johnston
In that sense, the playwright achieves some neat plot about-turns and amusingly absurd set pieces, undertaken with relish by the two well-matched leads in Andy Arnold’s production. Nonetheless, it is difficult to ignore the by-numbers nature of the play’s construction and execution, which becomes increasingly laborious and predictable as the evening wears on. Although the script features the odd gloriously convoluted insult (“You open your mouth and meaningless words just tumble out, like brain-damaged skydivers.”) there is little consistency of tone or characterisation, which further frustrates.
Among the supporting cast, Peter Kelly is sweet and funny as the bewildered Balthasar, while Gayle Telfer Stevens is formidable as a local vigilante on the hunt after paedophiles. Yet, so erratic and uneven is Neilson’s play that, though these two actors are frequently on stage together, they might as well be appearing in two entirely different plays.