As playwright and director, Alan Ayckbourn understands that a text is to a play what a score is to a concert: the sine qua non but not the be-all and end-all; both are nothing without players and audience. Communication is key. But what about the creator? How communicative must (s)he be to make a great work?
In this darkly funny 1987 play, set in a dystopian near future, Ayckbourn presents Jerome, a solitary composer in crisis. It is four years since he has written anything new. Not coincidentally, it is also four years since his wife and daughter left him, alienated by his obsessive recording of all their conversations - subsequently sampled and synthesised, becoming the bases of his compositions. The comparison with the sort of playwright who might steal traits from friends and relatives to flesh out characters is hard to avoid; Ayckbourn himself develops it humorously in the programme. Creative processes, though, are not the main subject here. The universal theme underpinning the drama is the opposite of Jean-Paul Sartre’s “hell is other people”. For Ayckbourn, other people may be bizarre, incomprehensible, uncomfortable, but communication - artistic, personal or social - is only possible through interaction with them. Life without others becomes a life without love.
As in his 2012 play Surprises, Ayckbourn introduces a robot character who contrasts with the humans by seemingly displaying selfless emotional attachment. This robot’s actions and speech patterns (sampled by Jerome from the women in his life) are comically formulaic and repetitive. Yet a sneaky suspicion creeps up: are they so different from the habitual behaviours of the humans, Jerome in particular? Playful, multidimensional performances from all - including Bill Champion as Jerome, Jacqueline King as his estranged wife, Jessie Hart as their daughter, Laura Matthews as a potential escort and Russell Dixon’s creepy child welfare officer - lighten dark themes with laughter.
• Henceforward… is at Stephen Joseph theatre, Scarborough until 8 October