Confusions: West End ReviewsThis page contains a selection of reviews from the New York premiere of Confusions in 2016 at the 59E59 Theaters as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival, where it was performed in repertory with the world premiere production of Alan Ayckbourn's Hero's Welcome. This production was directed by Alan Ayckbourn and featured the company from the Stephen Joseph Theatre's 2015 revival.
Take A Ride On The Farce Train With Two From Ayckbourn (by Ben Brantley)
Consider the mystery of the toy train. This industriously chugging mini-locomotive winds its way through Hero’s Welcome, Alan Ayckbourn’s 79th (you read that correctly) play, which just opened at 59E59 Theaters as part of the Brits Off Broadway Festival.
In a work that includes all manner of dire deceptions and betrayals, which seem guaranteed to end in tears if not in bloodshed, that little train set — which runs through the entire house of a mayor and her husband — may not seem like such a big deal. But this is a play by Mr. Ayckbourn; nothing is too small to bear revelatory weight.
The toy train and its elaborate accoutrements, the pride of a middle-aged man and the despair of his tolerant wife, initially register as one of those quirky, colourful details with which comic playwrights define their characters. But by the end, this seemingly incidental plaything suggests the full dimensions of a relationship, a tragic chapter in its history and, for one character, a fate that may well be worse than death.
Little things mean a lot in the world of Mr. Ayckbourn, whose Hero’s Welcome runs in repertory with his Confusions, a bill of linked sketches written 30 years earlier. (Both productions originated at his home base, the Stephen Joseph Theatre of Scarborough, England, and are directed by the author.) The wife and husband described above, played by Elizabeth Boag and Russell Dixon, aren’t even the central figures in Hero’s Welcome. That would be the hometown hero of the title and his foreign war bride, embodied by Richard Stacey and Evelyn Hoskins.
Yet so deft is Mr. Ayckbourn’s dramatic shorthand that he can summon complete, quirkily detailed back stories for not one but three intersecting couples in a single, standard-length play. He manages to do so while engineering an elaborate plot, as full of twists and secrets as anything by Ibsen, in which everybody lies, including the British government.
Mr. Ayckbourn, 77, has built one of the most prolific and successful careers in British theater on the premise that there are no small parts, in life or onstage. In multiplay masterworks like The Norman Conquests and House and Garden, he keeps shifting points of view, so that characters hitherto in the background suddenly dominate the foreground. And no matter what their positions on the canvas, these people are usually as sad as they are funny and vice versa.
The zesty appetisers that make up Confusions (which despite being one of Mr. Ayckbourn’s most performed works is only now having its New York premiere) demonstrate that this writer’s sensibility was fully formed 32 years ago, when he was a mere stripling in his mid-40s. They’re trifles by his later standards, quick-sketch farces programmed to end with zingers.
But these five one-acters also allow you to see clearly the basic building blocks from which Mr. Ayckbourn constructs his more complex works. And even the silliest of them is steeped in the critical yet compassionate sensibility — call it sentimental cynicism — that is uniquely their creator’s.
The best-known of these is the rowdiest, Gosforth’s Fête, in which a village fair is levelled by both a thunderstorm and raging human incompetence. My personal favourite is the first on the bill, Mother Figure, in which a homebound housewife has become so used to dealing only with her inexhaustible children that she treats any adults who enter her home as if they were toddlers.
Ms. Boag plays the Mom (pricelessly) in that one, and Charlotte Harwood and Stephen Billington are the couple who live next door. All three show up in different roles in the subsequent playlet, set in a small-town hotel, with Richard Stacey appearing as the absent father from the first play. Mr. Dixon joins their ranks for the third play, and the entire cast of five is recycled for the evening’s duration.
That’s one of the primary joys of Confusions, watching chameleon performers change identities with wigs and accents, while locations are transformed by the rearrangement of simple pieces of furniture. (Michael Holt is the designer.) But there’s also the joy of seeing Mr. Ayckbourn casually play with perspective, as in a restaurant scene in which we hear only what a waiter (Mr. Billington) hears as he moves in and out of earshot between two squabbling tables for two
Hero’s Welcome has no similar antics of technique. Though it is Mr. Ayckbourn’s most recent play, it is also one of this most old-fashioned. This tale of a soldier’s return to the town he left under shady circumstances years earlier has the structure of a 19th-century melodrama in which the sins of the past overtake the placid present.
The plot’s combustible ingredients include a jilted bride, arson, and a vial of tranquillisers and a loaded gun just begging to be picked up. Yet Hero’s Welcome remains a comedy, at least in the sense that Chekhov called his plays comedies. Its characters are enjoyably silly in their pretensions and eccentricities. They are also capable of acts of genuine evil and genuine heroism.
Hero’s Welcome is a crowded work, and not just because this production crams three detailed playing spaces — which portray the home turf of the play’s three sets of couples — onto a small stage. It has more twists of plot than a season of Coronation Street.
But never make the mistake of thinking Mr. Ayckbourn doesn’t know what he’s doing. The dense, teetering structure of Hero’s Welcome is dictated by the dense, teetering class structure that still rules and stifles English life.
Now throw an outsider into this insular society, and see if she sinks or swims or makes tidal waves. That’s Madrababacascabuna (the delightful Ms. Hoskins), the young wife of the returning hero, who looks like a natural victim.
Baba, as her husband calls her, doesn’t speak English. Which leads to the expected malapropisms, as when she tells a woman whose house she has just entered, “You have a beautiful hole.” That hostess, a kind soul in a sour marriage, explains, “You’ll find that in our language there’s lots of words than can be taken in different ways.”
Having to deal with all that linguistic nuance can be burdensome, of course, and that’s more or less true of any culture. Mr. Ayckbourn, gentleman that he is, has given Baba a vaguely Eastern European-sounding language he invented just for her.
She approaches a closed world — one in which Mr. Ayckbourn’s characters are usually prisoners for life — with her own set of shiny new tools. That may sound like a handicap. But in Hero’s Welcome it’s the foreign visitor who has the advantage over the old home team that Mr. Ayckbourn has spent his fruitful career coaching into blunders.
(New York Times, 13 June 2016)
A Taste of Alan Ayckbourn (by Terry Teachout)
The Brits Off Broadway summer festival offers two plays from England’s comic Chekhov: one, a poignant drama; the other, a sampling of humorous sketches.
Alan Ayckbourn, England’s comic Chekhov, is also a famously accomplished stage director. In recent seasons 59E59 Theaters’ Brits Off Broadway summer festival has been doing theater-loving New Yorkers a signal service by importing Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, which Mr. Ayckbourn ran for 37 years, to perform his stagings of his own plays. This year’s fare includes the U.S. premiere of Hero’s Welcome, his 79th play, and the New York premiere of Confusions, a 1974 mixed bill of interconnected one-act plays. Both are musts: Confusions is funnier than just about anything else to be seen on a New York stage right now, while Hero’s Welcome is one of the most poignant dramas that Mr. Ayckbourn has given us.
First performed in 2015, Hero’s Welcome is a dark comedy of domestic strife, the story of three married couples who become ensnared in a tight tangle of mixed motives that leads inexorably to violence and despair. Unusually for Mr. Ayckbourn, Murray and Baba (Richard Stacey and Evelyn Hoskins), a returning war hero and his waif-like refugee bride, still have a fair chance at happiness, but the other two couples exemplify in sharply contrasting ways his longstanding conviction that marital life is a state in which, to paraphrase Dr. Johnson, much is to be endured—most of it by women—and little enjoyed.
The straightforwardly plotted Hero’s Welcome contains none of the virtuoso theatrical prestidigitation that is Mr. Ayckbourn’s trademark, but it does make splendidly effective use of two stock types from his rogue’s gallery of men. Brad (Stephen Billington) is a monster of masculine vanity who has spent years cowing Kara (Charlotte Harwood), his long-suffering wife, into reluctant submission by the simple expedient of insulting her at every possible opportunity: “I think when we first started out together, they were meant as sort of jokes. But as time went on…I mean, it does get me down occasionally, being called an idiot all day long, it’s bound to. You begin to wonder whether it’s true, eventually.”
As for Derek (Russell Dixon), he’s one of the pitiful nonentities who turn up regularly in Mr. Ayckbourn’s plays, an agreeable but ineffectual boob who serves as consort to Alice (Elizabeth Boag), a small-town politician who married him out of desperation after having been left at the altar by Murray and impregnated by Brad. He is, by his own deceptively cheerful admission, one of life’s losers: “I don’t mind losing. I’m used to it. I quite enjoy it, really. The way I look at it, someone has to lose, don’t they? We can’t all be winners, can we?” Incapable of imposing himself on the world, he instead devotes himself to perfecting the elaborate model railroad with which he has filled the house that he shares with Alice, who at first glance seems to run roughshod over him but at play’s end finds herself at his oh-so-kindly mercy.
Unlike the impressively substantial Hero’s Welcome, Confusions is a dessert platter, five sketches about various aspects of middle-class life. One of them, Gosforth’s Fête, is a pulverizingly ludicrous miniature farce about a small-town church bazaar that disintegrates into utter chaos when a witless know-it-all (Mr. Dixon) leaves a backstage microphone switched on just in time for the whole town to overhear…but I’d better stop there. Only in the last play, A Talk in the Park, a snapshot of five strangers sitting in a park, each of whom wants to do all of the talking and none of the listening, does Mr. Ayckbourn draw explicitly from the well of melancholy that flavours most of his major work. Yet the other four plays, even Gosforth’s Fête, are sadder than they look, and though they’re all wonderfully funny, someone pays for every laugh.
The six talented actors seen in Confusions and Hero’s Welcome handle their multiple roles so resourcefully that you’re likely to come away thinking you saw at least a dozen different people cavorting on the tiny stage of 59E59’s 195-seat theater. As for Mr. Ayckbourn’s direction, it’s so subtle, even at its silliest, that you could be forgiven for failing to notice the myriad details that bring each play to finely observed life. Has there ever been a playwright who directed his own works more skilfully and imaginatively? I doubt it.
(Wall Street Journal, 16 June 2016)
Confusions & Hero's Welcome (by David Gordon)
After 79 plays, you'd think a writer would start losing his touch. But as Alan Ayckbourn proves in his tremendous new drama Hero's Welcome, he's just as wily and incisive now as he was in the early days of his career, when he was penning the likes of Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests.
Hero's Welcome is being presented in repertory with a much earlier Ayckbourn work, Confusions, as part of this year's Brits Off-Broadway festival at 59E59 Theaters. The two, which the author directs, couldn't be more different. Confusions, written in 1974, is a series of interconnected one-act playlets. Hero's Welcome, first performed in 2015, tells a single, powerful story from three different perspectives. And yet, 40 years apart, the two works are strikingly similar as both deal with how the battle of the sexes always leads to destruction.
Confusions was written to showcase the company members of the Library Theatre in Scarborough, England. Ayckbourn's goal was to astonish audiences by showing how cunning actors could change characters right before everyone's eyes. A frazzled mother begins to treat her visiting neighbours like her disobedient children. Her absent husband drunkenly attempts to bed an attractive woman he meets in a hotel bar. That bar's waiter, meanwhile, not only eavesdrops on this conversation but also overhears a political couple fighting about their failing marriage. The wife from that exchange is the guest of honour at an afternoon tea party, with disastrous results. Finally, five strangers on park benches attempt to ignore one another, but it's not as easy as it seems.
With this production, Ayckbourn achieves his original goal. The five actors, Elizabeth Boag, Charlotte Harwood, Stephen Billington, Richard Stacey, and Russell Dixon, brilliantly transform themselves into each role with a mere change of costume (Michael Holt is the production designer, providing perfectly shaggy attire and sets). Expert farceurs, they draw huge belly laughs from the play's centre-piece, Gosforth's Fête, which proves the highlight of the evening. While there's a dusty quality to it (the porno-groove incidental Muzak doesn't help), it's solidly enjoyable.
Not an ounce of dust is found on Hero's Welcome, which only proves that 41 years later, Ayckbourn is still an inventive master craftsman. At the centre of the work is Murray (Richard Stacey), a soldier returning from war to the hometown he left decades earlier under dubious circumstances. He's newly married to Madrababacascabuna (Evelyn Hoskins), who speaks only the tongue of the unspecified foreign country where Murray was fighting.
Ayckbourn adds more depth to this tale by exploring not only the life of Murray and Baba (as she's called), but the way they connect with the people back home. His former best pal, Brad (Stephen Billington), is fiercely competitive in a sexual nature and verbally abusive to his wife, Kara (Charlotte Harwood). Murray's bitter ex-fiancée, Alice (Elizabeth Boag), is the town's mayor, and married to the model-train-obsessed Derek (Russell Dixon). As tensions in each relationship bubble to the surface, Murray's presence unknowingly becomes the cause of health problems, marital conflicts, and cold-blooded murder.
The writing blends Ayckbourn's signature style of menacing darkness underneath uproarious situational comedy. It's an excellent, compelling look at human resilience in the face of terror, and the things people are willing to do to make each other both miserable and happy. The performances are top-notch, with Hoskins' strong-willed Baba and Billington's purely evil Brad making the biggest impressions. Only Dixon feels like an odd person out, a decade or two older than his character should be, but charming nonetheless.
For Ayckbourn fans, the two productions, both New York premieres, are essential viewing. Those looking to see only one have a choice: frothy comedy or intense drama. Either way, this residency proves that Ayckbourn still can create a compelling theatrical universe, even as he and his prodigious output push 80.
(Theatre Mania, 9 June 2016)
Alan Ayckbourn's Confusions at 59E59 is Great Theater (Marina Kennedy)
New York area audiences are fortunate to have the opportunity to see Confusions at the 59E59 Theaters now through July 3rd. Brilliantly written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn, the show is part of the theater's Brits Off Broadway Festival. Confusions consists of five short plays that are thoughtful, relatable and humorous. It's the stuff that great theatre is made of.
The stories in Confusions are timeless snapshots of real life that perfectly capture human foibles. They showcase Ayckbourn's remarkable gift for dialogue and his keen understanding of relationships. In Mother Figure the lines between the behavior of adults and children are blurred as a couple visits their neighbour, a weary mother of young kids. In Drinking Companion, Harry is a 37 year-old traveling salesman, unfaithful to his wife, who tries every conceivable trick to pick up two young women in a bar. Between Mouthfuls depicts two couples dining out separately under very tense circumstances. In Gosforth's Fête a local fundraiser goes completely awry as the weather takes a nasty turn and personal secrets are revealed. There is no solitude on a park bench in A Talk in the Park when a stranger sits down to chat. As the stories carefully unfold, there are some real surprises and each of them has genuine heart and laugh out loud moments. Cleverly orchestrated, the plays connect to the next one through one of its characters until the final one, A Talk in the Park.
Confusions' cast captures their roles with complete authenticity. As the five actors play multiple parts, they prove their diverse talents. The cast includes Richard Stacey, Charlotte Harwood, Stephen Billington, Russell Dixon and Elizabeth Boag. The show's characters are wonderfully developed, and the company doesn't miss a beat.
See Confusions. This theatrical gem is a great way to kick off your summer of entertainment.
(Broadway World, 10 June 2016)
First Nighter: Alan Ayckbourn (by David Finkle)
Confusions, at 59E59 Theatres - As the author of 79 - count ‘em, 79 - plays, Alan Ayckbourn rarely falls below a certain laugh level. Many of his rib-tickling jokes - and the situations from which he derives them - involve rancorous marrieds. That’s the case with two of the five one-acts stuffing this jolly evening. In Mother Figure, Lucy, from whom Rosemary and Terry appear to have let rooms, is a frumpy but dictatorial type who’s intent on keeping people in line. And does. In Between Mouthfuls, bickering Martin and Polly and bickering Mr. and Mrs. Pearce are seated at adjacent restaurant tables. The connection between them - Martin works for Mr. Pearce - leads to an amusing finish. In the other three plays, desperate Harry tries to put the moves on Bernice and Paula to no avail over hotel-bar cocktails (Drinking Companion), several stalwarts as a village fund-raiser attempt to overcome severe weather conditions with hilarious physicality (Gosforth’s Fête), and five people on park benches irritate each other with relentless chatter (A Talk in the Park). Ayckbourn, a rare playwright who knows exactly how to direct his own work, does just that with endlessly skilled actors Stephen Billington, Elizabeth Boag, Russell Dixon, Charlotte Harwood and Richard Stacey.
(Huffington Post, 9 June 2016)
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