|L-R: Frances Marshall, Antony Eden, and Louise Shuttleworth in A BRIEF HISTORY OF WOMEN. Photo by Tony Bartholomew.|
Even now, in his late seventies, the remarkably prolific Alan Ayckbourn shows no signs of slowing down. His 81st play, A Brief History of Women, premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, England in late 2017 and is currently being staged at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan. (And just for the record, Ayckbourn has already penned his 82nd play, Better Off Dead, which is scheduled to premiere at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in September of this year).
A Brief History of Women relates the rather mundane tale of Anthony “Tony” Spates (Antony Eden), an ordinary man on an ordinary odyssey through life, with some emphasis on his slightly more noteworthy interactions with a small handful of different women. The play is structured in four parts, set at 20 year intervals in Kirkbridge Manor, a Downton Abbey-ish manor house, in 1925 - or in one of its successor incarnations as the Kirkbridge Preparatory School for Girls (1945), the Kirkbridge Arts Center(1965), and the Kirkbridge Manor Hotel (1985).
When we first encounter Spates he is a 17-year old son of a farmer, serving as a temporary footman at Kirkbridge Manor during an engagement party being thrown by Lady Caroline Kirkbridge (Frances Marshall) to celebrate the engagement of her daughter and Lord Edward Kirkbridge’s (Russell Dixon’s) step-daughter, Lady Cynthia (Laura Matthews) to Captain Fergus Ffluke (Laurence Pears). In the course of the celebration, Lady Caroline has a bit too much to drink - it is, after all, the roaring ‘twenties and “bees knees” are all the rage – which results in her barging into her husband’s study - which she had been forbidden to enter - and so enraging him (by accusing him of being homosexual) that he verges on physically attacking her. Spates gallantly comes to her rescue and is rewarded by Lady Caroline’s bestowing on him his first “real” kiss.
Twenty years later, at the end of World War II, Kirkbridge Manor has been converted into a relatively expensive girls’ preparatory school. Through Lady Caroline’s encouragement, intervention and financial support, Spates succeeded in achieving an education well beyond the expectations of a farmer’s son, and now, at age 37, he has returned to what had once been Kirkbridge Manor and now is the Kirkbridge Preparatory School for Girls as an English and Geography teacher. The school’s headmaster and classics teacher is Dr. Wynford Williams (Russell Dixon) and the other teachers at the school are Eva Miller (Frances Marshall), Phoebe Long (Louise Shuttleworth), Desmond Kennedy (Laurance Pears) and, of greatest significance, Ursula Brock (Laura Matthews) with whom Spates has been carrying on a not so clandestine affair. Ursula’s grasp of reality is tenuous at best – while she persists in proclaiming her love for Spates, she also persists in her belief that Jimmy, her former fiancé who was killed during the war, will be returning to her – not in Heaven but right here on Earth! – in a blaze of glory. Which might make for a rather difficult ménage a trois. Not that it dissuades Ursula from attempting to have sex with Spates in full view of the entire student body, which results, inevitably in Spates’ dismissal.
A generation later, in 1965, the Kirkbridge Preparatory School for Girls (nee Kirkbridge Manor) has undergone yet another transition: it is now the Kirkbridge Arts Centre and Spates is its 57 year-old Administrative Director. The Centre is preparing for its annual “panto,” a uniquely British winter musical comedy tradition that that integrates children’s fairy tales with British vaudeville, while adhering to various conventions, including the “principal boy” or male juvenile lead (who is usually played by a girl), the “panto dame” (played by a man in outrageously exaggerated drag), ample audience participation, bawdy jokes, and a comedy animal. The panto for which the Kirkbridge Arts Centre is rehearsing is based on the story of Jack and the Beanstalk: Dennis Dunbar (Russell Dixon) has written the play, is directing it, and is its panto dame in the role of Jack’s mother; his wife, Gillian Dunbar (Louise Shuttleworth) is playing the front end of the family cow that Jack will be selling; Pat Wiggly (Frances Marshall) is Jack, the “principal boy”; and Rory Tudor (Laurence Pears) is the peddler (or “piddler!”) whom Pat encounters on his way to sell the cow.
Gillian gradually reveals to Spates that she and Dennis have less than an ideal marriage, a fact that is underscored when she and Spates realize that when Dennis and Pat left to rehearse their musical duet, they had something more than that in mind. It is the final nail in the coffin of Dennis and Gillian’s marriage and Spates, who seems to be making something of a habit of catching women on the rebound, is once again available – even if it means playing the rear end of a cow.
By 1985, Kirkbridge Manor once again has been transformed, this time into the Kirkbridge Manor Hotel, an assisted living residence. Spates is now 77 years old and has retired from his former position as manager of the hotel but is temporarily filling in for the current manager. Tilly Seabourne-Watson (Laura Matthews) and her husband, Jim Seabourne-Watson (Laurence Pears) have brought their 98-year-old great-grandmother, Caroline Seabourne (Frances Marshall) to stay. Of course, Caroline Seabourne is (or once was) Lady Caroline Kirkbridge and both she and Spates recall that first kiss. The world has come full circle.
I must reluctantly admit that I don’t think that this is one of Ayckbourn’s finest works but it is a wonderful vehicle for allowing six very talented performers to exhibit their talents. Antony Eden is the only one of the six who does not perform multiple roles: He is Anthony Spates from beginning to end but he does a terrific job as he evolves from callow youth to mature senior citizen. Frances Marshall is equally impressive in her portrayals of the 38 year-old Caroline and the 98 year-old Caroline. But there is even more to her than that: she is fine as the ethnically harassed German-Swiss teacher, Eva Miller, and even better yet as the exuberant “principal boy” Pat Wiggly.
Laura Matthews is delightfully charming as Caroline’s insecure daughter, Cynthia; as her patronizing great-granddaughter,Tilly; and as the irrepressible and delusional Ursula. And in a complete about-face, she pulls off the role of Jenny Tyler, the relatively incompetent and surly stage manager at the Kirkbridge Arts Centre, with equal aplomb. Laurence Pears is similarly effective in his roles as the upstanding Captain Fergus Ffluke; as Desmond Kennedy, the sports teacher; as Rory Tudor, the mindless hippie; and as Jim Seabourne-Watson, Caroline’s responsible great-grandson. Louise Shuttleworth also deserves considerable credit as well for her portrayals of Mrs. Reginald Ffluke, Fergus’ mother; of the bigoted Phoebe Long; of the long-suffering Gillian Dunbar; and of Ruby Jensen, the receptionist at the Kirkbridge Manor Hotel.
But I have saved the very best for last. Russell Dixon is brilliant as the selfish, misogynist, and brutish Lord Edward Kirkbridge. He is even better as the stultified headmaster, Wynford Williams. And he is simply phenomenal as Dennis Dunbar, the panto dame. (He also has a minor role as Gordon, the hall porter at the Kirkbridge Hotel, that appears to have been thrown in by Ayckbourn as something of an afterthought but there’s no reason to hold that against him.) Indeed, if anyone truly deserves standing ovations for his performances, it is Russell Dixon.