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Theater Review—Alan Ayckbourn’s “A Brief History of Women” at the Brits Off Broadway Festival

A Brief History of Women

Written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn

Performances through May 27, 2018


Laura Matthews in Alan Ayckbourn's A Brief History of Women (photo: Tony Bartholomew)

Something new from Alan Ayckbourn is always cause for rejoicing, even when it’s relatively minor like his 81st play, A Brief History of Women. (He’s already completed his 82nd.) Not quite farce or satire but pitched somewhere in between, this play in four parts lets silliness and bad behavior butt heads with the sympathy the playwright extends to even his most risible characters.


The protagonists are Anthony Spates and Kirkbridge Manor; the former appears first as a naïve 17-year-old footman to a rich family at the manor in 1925, then reappears in each of the play’s three following scenes, each taking place 20 years after the previous one. The manor house changes along with Spates—it’s a girls’ school in 1945 (Spates teaches there), an arts center in 1965 (Spates runs the place) and a hotel in 1985 (Spates is the retired manager)—leading one to ask if those changes are for the better. 


That question isn’t answered, however, because although Spates and the house figure in all four scenes, they are mainly bystanders to the human comedy going on around them over a 60-year span. The teenage Spates gets his first real kiss from the lady of the house after her elderly husband has a heart attack, while the 37-year-old teacher looks on helplessly as his lover (still shattered by the death of her fiancée during World War II) fatally climbs on the rocket that climaxes the school fireworks display. 

At age 57, the arts center’s head ends up as the back half of a cow, rehearsing with the actress who just discovered her director husband’s cheating on her, while the retired (and widowed—he married the cow’s front half) 77-year-old returns to the hotel, where he meets the original lady of the house, now well into her 90s.


The glory of Ayckbourn’s writing is that, even when it’s a minor work—at least when compared to the masterly The Norman Conquests, Absurd Person Singular, Intimate Exchanges, Comic Potential and Private Fears in Public Faces, to name just a handful—there’s always an especially felicitous observation or an empathetic moment that tears your heart out, like Women’s lovely and understated finale: an unforeseen reunion brings closure to Spates’s entire life…and that of the manor itself. 


Director Ayckbourn treats writer Ayckbourn’s work nimbly, including the droll use of sound as the characters move from one room to another, the invisible opening and closing doors allowing conversations to rise or fall as rooms are left and entered. These and other adroit touches work handily on Kevin Jenkins’s spiffy set, which brings the ever-changing house to life over six decades, and his clever costumes visualizing the passing of the years.


Playing two dozen characters, the formidable cast of six—Anthony Eden as the delectably hangdog Spates, aging 60 years but remaining ageless, laugh-out-loud scene-stealer Russell Dixon, and the versatile and funny Laura Matthews, Laurence Pears, Frances Marshall and Louise Shuttleworth—keeps the play shuttling forward, even when Ayckbourn himself nearly sabotages it with a drawn-out third episode in the arts center concerning a “Jack and the Beanstalk” rehearsal that goes on far too long.


But even the occasional hiccup can’t erase another noteworthy Alan Ayckbourn stage event.


A Brief History of Women

Brits Off Broadway, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY

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