Alan Ayckbourn’s hefty oeuvre lingers on the faultlines in middle-class married life. “We all marry the wrong people,” thundered a character in Family Circles, and Ayckbourn’s latest drama proves little has changed for his woe-begotten husbands and wives. Almost everyone in Anno Domino seems to have married the wrong person, though the central concern is more the existential state of learning to live unhappily in marriage.
A 25th-wedding anniversary dinner sparks a low-level earthquake in a middle-English household when the “celebrating” couple, Sam and Milly, announce their separation. The dramatic focus is not on them but on Sam’s elderly parents, Ella and Ben, whose own marriage is shaken by the news.
Ayckbourn began this, his 84th play, as a stage drama but then adapted it as a lockdown audio play for the Stephen Joseph theatre in Scarborough. He not only recorded it himself but acted the various parts together with his wife, Heather Stoney, from the 70-something central couple to their teenage grandson. That is a feat in itself; they play eight characters, four apiece, adding tonal differences (sometimes with the help of technical wizardry) though the pitch of the youngest characters are the least convincing.
The theatre’s artistic director, Paul Robinson, calls it “one of Alan’s ‘lighter’ plays … perfect entertainment in these troubled times”. It’s perhaps too light”: there are some satirical amusements set beside quietly held suffering, but it feels long drawn-out at almost two hours with not enough happening and plot points that feel flat.
What raises it are the bigger background themes, besides marriage. While the drama is typically set in the domestic sphere, over cups of teas, in back gardens and cafes, and in its own seemingly timeless bubble, contemporary British politics are ingrained within including conflicts around Brexit.
Ben and Ella are sent up for their jingoism, out-of-touch outlook and snobbery, and it seems as if Ayckbourn is satirising not only the postwar leave generation but slyly satirising a toxic version of Englishness, too. Ella speaks of “foreigners everywhere you look” and pettily compares the superior joys of the English climate to the Italian one. Even divorce is tied to the national character: “Stiff upper lip and all that,” says Ben, and “splitting up. It’s just not English.”
The retrograde thinking extends beyond nationhood; some characters still haven’t grasped the basic facts on climate change, and views on the sexes are prehistoric. New men are “flaccid”, according to Ella, and new women are to be avoided.
Ben is her accomplice, but Ella is the villain of the piece. She speaks with chauvinism about women’s place in marriage and treats her daughter, Martha, with contempt, while excusing her son’s marital misdemeanours. It is a horrifying depiction of internalised misogyny and tyrannical motherhood that verges on monstrous caricature.
Ben is a more nuanced, Chekhovian character, retreating into his garden and holding on to his hope for mankind. There are some excruciating emotional moments, such as when Raymond tries to tell his mother he loves her and when Martha tries to stick up for herself in the face of Ella’s maternal imperiousness, but the play feels underpowered on the whole. It’s rather like an edition of The Archers whose plot strands might be more fully developed in the next episode.