Pitlochry Festival Theatre, 18 June 2011
THE PIVOTAL scene in My Fair Lady, the centrepiece of this year’s Pitlochry programme, is the one in which Eliza Doolittle, a former flower girl, passes herself off as an elegant lady at a grand social gathering. Playing in the same season, Alan Ayckbourn’s 1987 play Henceforward . . . revolves around a similar transformation. In this case, it is a life-like robot passing herself off as a middle-aged man’s fiancée during a meeting to discuss the custody of his daughter.
In the Lerner and Loewe musical, Eliza pulls it off and captures our hearts. In Ayckbourn’s version, the robot doesn’t exactly fail the ordeal – in fact, she does surprisingly well – but she survives with such mechanical clumsiness that we have to laugh.
If only we laughed more often in this laboured comedy. The funny scene comes after the interval, once we have endured a first half that is little but a long, mirthless set-up. Mildly amusing though the play becomes, it’s not really worth the wait.
Ayckbourn’s setting is a semi-dystopian future where gangs of lawless girls rule the streets, the world is connected by TV monitors and ready meals cook themselves. Here, living in mechanised isolation, high-tech composer Jerome (Alan Steele) tries to break a bad case of writer’s block in between lovelessly seducing a young woman from the escort agency. Meanwhile his malfunctioning robot trots back and forth with the laundry just to keep herself busy.
Ayckbourn’s theme is to do with the atomisation of modern society, the way we have become more connected to our often malfunctioning technology and less connected to each other. If this was true in the late-80s when the play was first staged, it is even more so today in our age of the iPhone and the internet, but Henceforward . . . gives little dramatic momentum to the idea. There is nothing in Jerome’s morose behaviour that makes him seem like a spokesperson for our alienated generation. By the time we reach the reconciliation of Jerome and his estranged wife, it seems less like a way to resolve a deep dilemma than a convenient way to give the play a happy ending.
Bright performances by Helen Logan and Shirley Darroch, taking turns as the robot, are entertaining but not enough to give the show purpose. It doesn’t help that the pace of Ken Alexander’s production is repeatedly broken by a series of video phone calls from one of Jerome’s friends. Neither relevant nor funny, this subplot merely slows the already torpid action. If there is a way to make the play work – and it was lauded on its debut – Alexander hasn’t found it.
In repertory until October.
© Mark Fisher 2011
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