Family Album review – Alan Ayckbourn’s playful snapshot of social flux

Stephen Joseph theatre, Scarborough
Skipping between three generations from the 50s to the present, this occasionally poignant play pulls back from the emotional force of its concept

At 83, Alan Ayckbourn is making the most of one advantage he has over nearly every other playwright: perspective. Where last year’s The Girl Next Door contrasted the war-torn Britain of his youth with the era of lockdown, his 87th play skips lightly across the last seven decades to present a thoughtful, occasionally poignant view of shifting generational attitudes to the home, to work and to the role of women.

His conceit is to play three timeframes simultaneously in one upper middle-class living room. The space is delineated by an LED lighting strip on Kevin Jenkins’s set, switching from turquoise to beige to red as we move from 1952 to 1992 and 2022. At the most resonant moments, a parent from one era will stand unseen alongside the daughter from another time, emotionally present and physically absent.

Frances Marshall.
A career denied in favour of motherhood … Frances Marshall. Photograph: Tony Bartholomew

The postwar to post-Brexit movement of Family Album is broadly one of female emancipation and male eradication. Georgia Burnell’s Maggie is the dedicated housewife, biting her tongue and holding the fort as the Stanton family establishes itself in 1950s London. By 1992, Frances Marshall’s Sandy has turned from hippy to alcoholic, the drink suppressing her feelings of loss at a career denied in favour of motherhood. Come 2022, Elizabeth Boag’s Alison is ready to abandon the family home, feeling free to get on with her life as a CGI graphic designer.

Men, meanwhile, become increasingly peripheral figures. Antony Eden is creepily credible as a genial 1950s chauvinist, and somehow preferable to the offstage Jerry who leaves Sandy for a fellow teacher 40 years later. Only the suggestion of domestic violence – slapping then, throwing objects now – connects the patriarchy of 1952 with Alison’s same-sex marriage of 2022.

At its best, the play reveals an elegant symmetry, the stage being filled and emptied as it shows how easily lives – both male and female – can be curtailed by circumstance. In weaker moments, especially in the first half, it meanders as if distracted by the coming and going of the furniture. But if it pulls back from the full emotional force of its own concept, it remains a theatrically playful snapshot of 70 years of social flux, all witnessed by this one perceptive playwright.


Mark Fisher

The GuardianTramp

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