Absurd Person Singular: Off-Stage, On-Stage (2012)

This article by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist Simon Murgatroyd, explores the original Alan Ayckbourn’s use of off-stage characters with particular reference to Absurd Person Singular.

Absurd Person Singular is notably Alan Ayckbourn’s first off-stage play; a play which eschews the obvious setting for somewhere ultimately more revealing.
The play was originally set in the living rooms of the three couples, showing both the actual parties and, presumably, the fourth couple Dick and Lottie Potter. Quickly realising the play was not working, Alan decided to move the action into the kitchen instead, thus removing the tedium of showing three parties. It also took Dick and Lottie out of view, who arguably might have absorbed all attention had they been left on stage. In his book on Alan, Michael Holt offers Alan’s explanation for the change: “There is far more comedy, he [Ayckbourn] insists, offstage than on. The social mask is most likely to be dropped here and the true picture of the occasion revealed.” For example, in the apparent privacy of the kitchen, Sidney feels comfortable approaching Ronald about his business plans - which is ultimately the real motivation behind the first party. Moving the action to the kitchen, as Ayckbourn himself notes, is also a simple way of dispensing with all the introductory pleasantries and social niceties that would otherwise be an obligatory part of a party.
The kitchen is generally not the centre-stage of a party and while the living rooms would have been cleaned and tidied for the guests, the kitchens are out-of-sight and act as a staging area. As a result, the kitchens of
Absurd Person Singular offer additional insight into their owners and vividly illustrate the decay of society that has been argued as one of the predominant themes of the play.
The Hopcrofts’ kitchen is meticulous and modern, the Jackson’s kitchen shambolic and the Brewster-Wright’s kitchen antiquated and largely not functioning. If we examine the kitchens with regard to the characters, we see their owners reflected in them. Spotless and well maintained, over-loaded with the latest gadgets, the Hopcroft kitchen shows Jane’s obsessiveness and Sidney’s controlling streak. Nothing is out of place, everything perfect. Sidney’s aspiration to rise the social ladder reflected in the abundance of mod-cons, which - at least to his mind – reflects how he feels wealthy and influential people’s kitchens should be while implying how successful he is. Of course, no-one is taken in by this and it also reflects the sterility of the couple’s relationship. There is no warmth or human touch in this kitchen.
The Jacksons’ kitchen is a better reflection of a socially successful couple. Trendy in an under-stated way, yet uncared and unkempt. Geoffrey has no need to try and prove his success, he is not proving a point. It is also a snapshot of Geoffrey and Eva’s relationship: there is little care of this kitchen and as little regard for it as Geoffrey has for Eva and Eva has for herself.
The Brewster-Wrights’ kitchen is set in the past, the Aga cooker a reflection of a couple that has not moved with the times. The kitchen, like the couple, is dysfunctional.
As has been noted, moving the play ‘off-stage’ removed Dick and Lottie Potter, but allowed Alan full rein with off-stage characters that by the end of the play feel every bit as real as the on-stage characters. Dick and Lottie cleverly indicate the party is actually taking place and make it clear why people want to escape into the kitchen. Dick and Lottie in effect provide the reason why the first act is set in the kitchen as everyone wants to escape them. A third off-stage character is George, the dog. In the first act he is stuck in the Jacksons’ car and less important, but in the second act he takes the place of Dick and Lottie as the reason why everyone is in the kitchen. The couples are trapped due to this practically rabid dog patrolling the hallway. The combination of off-stage characters also leads to the extremely vivid moment where Dick Potter is savaged by George. So clearly have these characters and their actions been built up, the moment is almost as vivid as had it been shown on stage.
This would be the first time Alan would write an off-stage play, but he would return to the device in later plays such as
Bedroom Farce (where Dick and Lottie again lurk off-stage), Just Between Ourselves and, notably, Life Of Riley. Arguably, Alan develops the idea of the off-stage play to its limits as well in The Norman Conquests and House & Garden where the audience witness the same characters in the same period over several locales.

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.