Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present – Review – Stephen Joseph Theatre
By Eve Luddington, September 2019
It’s Micky’s 80th birthday. His wife Meg, now his carer too, has prepared the usual birthday tea – sandwiches, biscuits and a cake – and they’re waiting to share it with their son, Adrian. Their own 55 year-old marriage is stable, predictable; Adrian is a divorcee who will be bringing the latest of many girlfriends and fiancees, Grace.
The problem as they see it, is that Adrian’s makes unreasonable demands on his partners. Micky’s all in favour of warning the meek and mild-mannered Grace that Adrian is, in fact, a secret Lothario. So begins Scene One of Ayckbourn’s own 80th birthday play which, he says, is ‘really a story about a man [Adrian] who’s trying to deal with and understand women’.
Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present is in Ayckbourn’s customary territory of family relationships and human dilemmas. It’s certainly not his first birthday-themed play and has a relatively simple story. Yet, this remarkable playmaker still engages and delights his audience in this, the world premiere of the 83rd he’s written. It’s the way he tells ‘em and his characters that count.
Church-going Adrian resembles a man-sized little boy more than a philanderer when we first meet him. How can his father claim he’s like Superman, a Jekyll and Hyde character, as his father claims? We want to know.
Ayckbourn gradually reveals all with one of his most favoured theatrical devices, the manipulation of time. In each of four scenes, he moves time backwards from the present-day, alighting on three past family birthdays to reveal the causes of Adrian’s dubious reputation; the story ‘ravels’ rather than ‘unravels’ (Ayckbourn, programme notes). In each scene, we’re introduced to one of Adrian’s ‘sexual conquests’ – all played by the same actor.
In Scene Two, on Meg’s 60th birthday 15 years ago, Adrian is uncomfortably married to Faith who has confided her disappointment to Meg. By the interval, the audience are no wiser about the origin of Adrian’s reputation – but we’re avidly speculating.
Scene Three, the most hilarious and dramatically engaging, brings Adrian inadvertently together, on his 30th birthday 25 years ago, with a call girl named Charity. Micky and Meg’s interpretation of the situation shows us exactly why they regard him as sexually rampant. Finally, in a rather tender and gentle scene, set 38 years ago when Adrian is 17, we discover the reality of the first sexual encounter he has spoken earlier about – with his sister’s friend, Hope. And now, the poignant story is clear.
Ayckbourn’s direction is as meticulous as ever, and he’s very well-supported by the technical team. So well choreographed was the first scene change, accomplished to the strains of folksy dance music (designed by Ayckbourn), that it won a round of applause.
The four actors, all known to Stephen Joseph audiences, have an almost telepathic rapport with one-another and us. It’s like being entertained by some highly talented family members. And, because this is theatre-in-the-round, we’re in the space with them. Their timing, so important to the comedy and tragedy of Ayckbourn’s plays, is impeccable overall – though it’s a shame they talked through some of the laughs.
The major challenge for three of the actors, of course, is that their characters ‘grow’ 38 years younger by stages during the play. They all meet it well. Russell Dixon isn’t entirely convincing physically as a 42 year-old Micky, but we certainly recognise this man: kept firmly on track by his wife, he perhaps projects his own desires onto Adrian and relishes his belief that Adrian’s a secret stud. And, as the 80 year-old, Dixon raises sympathetic laughs – from an audience mainly of wrinklies – about the frailties of old age; not an easy task.
Jemma Churchill embodies the kind of no-nonsense, practical mother and wife who has both sense and sensibility but she has her moments too. If Jamie Baughan can’t quite achieve the teenage presence of Adrian at 17, he makes up for it with a highly sympathetic portrayal of a gentle, decent man more comfortable with his mum than his female peers and, ultimately, rather lost and lonely. His wide-eyed venture into drunkenness, in Scene Three, is a gem.
Naomi Petersen rises wonderfully to the challenge of playing four diverse characters. She’s able to transform physically and vocally to convince us of Grace’s godliness and repressed sexuality; Faith’s sensitivity and depression; Charity’s hard-bitten cynicism – and Hope’s excruciatingly awkward adolescence. These characters dictate the mood and pace of the play; Petersen’s outstanding portrayal means she has the audience and our emotions in the palm of her hand.
Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present is not Ayckbourn’s most ambitious, complex or even funniest play but it is highly affecting. It’s a well-made play in the best sense of the phrase, an intricately woven piece in which each element depends on the others to present the messiness of human beings and relationships.
As a woman, I think it avoids the darkness and discomfiture of many later Ayckbourn plays and evokes more sympathy than some – but I don’t feel the same pressure to prove my sexual drive and virility as many men. Perhaps the guy behind me in the audience hinted at some masculine discomfort when he said: ‘That’s why Ayckbourn’s so funny – ‘cos he’s so bloody true.’
It received some of the most enthusiastic applause I’ve heard in the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Why? Ayckbourn’s audiences, male and female, know that he’s talking to us about ourselves.
images: Tony Bartholemew