Family Album – Review – Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
By Elizabeth Stanforth-Sharpe, September 2022
For many people from the Scarborough area, there is a defining point in their lives based on which of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays was the one first seen. For me, it was Absurd Person Singular, his twelfth play, which premiered in the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in mid-June 1972. It was our English teacher’s ‘treat’ before end of year exams kicked in. Set in three kitchens over three Christmases, it compared the lives of three different couples and explored how one household affected the others.
Ayckbourn excels at analysing societal attitudes and family relationships, often using trios of characters, and playing with elements of time, and much of his work builds upon themes, links and structures from previous plays. So, fast forward fifty years to the premiere of Sir Ayckbourn’s eighty-seventh play Family Album; a play about three generations of the same family in a home that has harboured them all, each family reflecting upon the connections and contrasts between them, the three timelines running simultaneously together. It at once has echoes of play eighty-one, A Brief History Of Women (2017) with its over-riding quote, ‘Houses. They never forget you. They always remember you’, but this time the women are remarkable in a very different way.
“Delightfully humorous moments”
The play begins in 1952 with a couple, Peggy and John Stanton, who are moving into their own home with their two young children, after living with her parents since their wartime marriage. John, played disturbingly well by Antony Eden, has the chauvinistic attitude to his wife, and women in general that is creepily evocative of the era’s attitudes. Peggy arrives ahead of John, enjoying expressing her creativity and delight in being able to make a home for the very first time, thoughtfully setting her parents’ hand-me-down furniture around the room – the desk under the window so that she can enjoy the view as she does the housekeeping books, and the settee and chair central to the room to create easy avenues for conversation.
John, ex-RAF, speaking the BBC English that is redolent of those times, blusters in when the work is done, and condescendingly belittles Peggy for the choices she has made. There are some delightfully humorous moments with the removal men as they shift and re-shift furniture, but we soon realise that the ‘man of the house’ is a bully who wants to squash his wife and children into the most confined corner of the room whilst he sprawls his own needs – physical, possessional and emotional – throughout the space.
The comfiest chair is ‘his’ chair, he expects a full meal after his exhausting day at the office and a full roast dinner on Sunday – which, of course, only he is capable of carving, and has no concept that rationing is still an issue. It comes as no surprise to learn that he believes in smacking the children to discipline them, or that the sexist double standards are as worn as the inherited settee; his son is clever and carries only ‘puppy fat’ which he will naturally grow out of; his daughter, Sandra, is so overweight that the only way she will get a boyfriend is if they put a girdle on her and flatten her, and, as a female, she isn’t worth educating and couldn’t possibly be ‘clever’. Georgia Burnell is polished as the subservient wifey, elegantly trying to please her husband, but holding her own counsel as Peggy quietly holds the family together, recognising that herself and her daughter are sacrificial lambs in a society that does not acknowledge the potential of women.
We find Sandra in 1992, played magnificently by Frances Marshall with an over-loud, strident shrillness that begs to be ‘heard’; pathos and humour intermingled. She is chaotic, craving attention, grieving the career she was not allowed to have, struggling with alcohol and drug addictions, has a husband who prefers to be elsewhere, and is raising her daughter Alison by herself. Her brother is unsympathetic to her situation. When Alison returns from school to find her mum unconscious from an overdose and we discover that she once laced her daughter’s birthday trifle with LSD, we see how dysfunctional and damaged Sandra really is.
In 2022, Alison (Elizabeth Boag) is married to Jess, and we meet them just as the removal men are about to arrive to help them move out of the house. It is clear that they haven’t spent much time in the room, and it is telling that there are no men in this household. Alison doesn’t want to take any of her grandparent’s furniture with her and as the only couple we have seen who really trust and listen to each other continue in dialogue, the pain of inherited traits, acquired behaviours and bad memories is slowly revealed.
It doesn’t go unnoticed that Alison works as a CGI graphic designer. She is an expert at visualising new products and ideas before they come into actual being, and she is applying the same principles to her marriage; it will be in a new place, in a new format, and look completely different to what has gone before. Boag gives Alison that defined blend of closed body language, downcast eyes and curled up torso that embodies those who live their lives diminished and shrunken, and then visibly straightens, her facial features opening out as she crosses the threshold. It’s quietly and perceptively done and is so moving to watch.
Jess works as a researcher and reporter for the BBC; a symbol of the communication and analysis that needed to happen within the family dynamic. Played sensitively, in a charmingly understated way by Tanya-Loretta Dee, Jess is a breath of fresh air blowing through the stale atmosphere, and a catalyst for much needed change.
“Sense of imprisonment”
It’s a new way of saying, ‘No matter what our circumstances or background, if we can imagine something better for ourselves, then we can create it.’ There are indications that Alison may be caught off guard at times, but she is hell bent on giving her absolute best to kick against the traces, build better and re-write the legacy.
Kevin Jenkins’ set design is ingeniously unembellished. A room layout bound by lights of differing colours; sometimes the simplest pictures can relay the most profound things. It is the intervention of Jason Taylor’s sound designs, as humorous as they are on occasion, which add real intelligence to the piece. Doors, portals, entrances and exits, have, throughout history and literature, been emblematic of pathways to opportunities, challenges and confinements.
For John and Peggy opening the doors of their home is a straightforward affair. For Sandra, her struggle with opening and closing doors conveys so much more; the compositions convey being stuck at the least, a sense of imprisonment at the most. Jess is the one who crosses thresholds easily and silently in the 2022 scenario, unfettered by generational ties, whilst Alison stays static, enclosed in the reminder walls of everything that binds her, right until the very last moment when she makes the bold first step into a new life. There’s a neat circularity to the script that begins with possessing a home and ends with de-possessing a home, and yet, ironically, it is about breaking that cycle.
“Style and precision”
Special mention must be made of the two removal men, Jude Deeno and David Lomond. Both are young men who stepped away from their original work – Deeno was a robotic engineer and Lomond was an Electrical Engineer – to follow their dreams of being part of the acting industry. They risked everything at a time when the arts were precariously balanced, enrolled on the Coventry University Scarborough campus Acting BA, which works in partnership with Stephen Joseph Theatre, and graduated with Honours this year. They encapsulate in reality some of the themes of this play; moving forward into new things. They performed their parts with style and precision of humour, and good things must surely be ahead.
Sir Alan Ayckbourn chose to direct Family Album himself, and it is a fitting decision. His eighty-seventh play is strong, contemporary, bold, knocks any old stereotypes that still happen to be lying around into touch, and sets forth a challenge to go boldly forward, without looking back and unafraid of finding new ways to do things.
Wonderfully written, wonderfully performed and thoughtfully created, with several messages the world needs to hear in these extraordinary times.
‘Family Album’ runs until October 1st at Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough