“Improbable Fiction” by Alan Ayckbourn at The Mill at Sonning, 23 March 2017
A sociable and good-humoured twenty-two of us, a majority from Upton, but augmented by family and friends from elsewhere, sat down for an excellent meal in the picturesque restaurant at the still-functioning mill. We then proceeded to the spectacular amphitheatre – with easy acoustics and perfect sight-lines – to enjoy the expected professional performance of what had been billed as a hilarious comedy.
By the interval, I felt I had been misinformed. We had watched a mildly amusing meeting of a creative writers’ circle, with some nicely delineated characters who evinced plenty of mutual likes and dislikes and a good deal of back history. Clem’s barely intelligible Sci-Fi story, complete with the malapropisms which infuriated the ill-tempered Brevis, a retired teacher, was well delivered and the encouraging chairmanship of Arnold endorsed the sympathy one might have felt for the two budding authors, Jess and Grace, who hadn’t yet managed to write anything. But …. It wasn’t Ayckbourn at his funniest, and we were left bewildered by a blackout and a glimpse of people in Victorian costumes, one wielding a knife and screaming to end the first act.
All became clear. The stories envisaged by would-be authors were played out around a bemused Arthur, striving to maintain some sanity and reality in a whirl of activity. In close succession, he was invaded by Jess’s Victorian melodrama, Clem’s alien-hunting American investigators (complete with malapropisms) and Vivvi’s poetry-quoting detective solving a mysterious death in the upstairs bedroom. This entailed an amazing number of costume-changes, usually heralded by another blackout – and the subtle switching of the telephone to indicate period. All actors except Arthur were given opportunities to show their versatility, and they revelled in it. The scenes became zanier and zanier – though there was a semblance of plot development in each story – and at last we were watching hilarious farce, well executed. Ayckbourn’s invention and tidy plotting even included Brevis’s half-finished song of the first act being used for a decidedly Shakespearean bergomask to round it off, waving alien detectors which doubled as buttercups and an alien pod which doubled as a walnut boat for the goblin of Grace’s children’s story. In the end, it was what we had been promised.