Wildest Dreams: World Premiere Reviews
Theatre (by Michael Billington)
"One of the pleasures of early summer is the prospect of a new Alan Ayckbourn play in Scarborough. Wildest Dreams, his 42nd play, opens the season at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round; and it is worth pointing out that it is followed by two further premieres and a rare revival of a feminist play from 1912. At a time when new work is scarce and regional theatre is wilting, Scarborough defiantly bucks the trend.
What strikes one about Wildest Dreams is that Ayckbourn takes one into ever-darker emotional territory and, at the same time, uses theatre's expressive possibilities to the hilt. My suspicion is that Ayckbourn is importing into his adult work the kind of imaginative freedom he employs in his children's plays. He also now seems so confident of his technique that he can offer audiences a heady brew, combining madness and hints of incest and lesbianism, while still retaining the framework of comedy.
Wildest Dreams ingeniously crams three separate households onto the tiny Scarborough stage. We have the Inchbridges' sitting room where Stanley, an English teacher, and his unfulfilled wife act as hosts every week to a group of characters who play escapist wizard-and-dragon fantasy games. Their fellow players, whom we track to their own separate lairs, are a butch female toughie called Rick who lives in the basement of her parents' old home and Warren, a computer freak and sci-fi nut who inhabits an attic which he treats as a control-room that allows him to dominate his enslaved mother and possibly the world. This is classic Ayckbourn territory; a study of suburban fantasists who prove, as T.S. Eliot said, that "humankind cannot bear very much reality". But it is also made clear that these people are perfectly contented with their weekly escape into medieval sorcery.
Only with the arrival of a catalyst, in the trim, attractive shape of Marcie, is the group thrown into disarray. She initially invades Rick's basement in flight from her cruel, torturing husband and is invited along to the weekly ritual at the Inchbridges. Marcie's open nature stirs poor "Stanley's under-developed heart", drives his wife to frenzied jealousy and eventual madness, leads Warren to believe he has found a sympathetic fellow-alien and turns the solitary, sluttish Rick into a mutely domesticated creature: Marcie leaves behind a trail of emotional havoc and proves that reality is more than most people can cope with.
Some critics have suggested that Ayckbourn is recycling familiar themes; and it is true that in plays like A Chorus of Disapproval he has shown the disruptive effect of a do-gooding outsider on a community. But this play is also wilder, stranger and emotionally starker than anything Ayckbourn has shown us before. The scene where Mrs Inchbridge's brother, a hideously punctilious VAT inspector, is accused of harbouring an unnatural fixation with his sister manages to be shocking and comic at the same time. And Hazel Inchbridge's retreat into infantilism hits different people in different ways: I found it wincingly painful while the man next to me, who had a laugh that could be heard in Whitby, guffawed uproariously.
What Ayckbourn shows, in this unsettling play, is that life is always an uneasy, muddled blend of tragedy and comedy and that people desperately need their consoling illusion. In this he may be following in the wake of Ibsen, O'Neill and Tennessee Williams, but he does so in his own unique way, not least in his suggestion that computer software is an aid to superstitious escapism.
It is as dark a comedy as anything Ayckbourn has written and it is meticulously directed by the man himself: the sound effects with their ghostly voices and Lear-like winds are especially stunning. Barry McCarthy, an Ayckbourn veteran, plays Inchbridge as a nervously nice teacher who fulfils his fantasies of power through the weekly board game. Rebecca Lacey is a mite posh to be a plausible waitress but she makes the beaming catalyst one of those sunny, open-hearted characters who in Ayckbourn invariably bring disaster in their wake. And there is good work from Isabel Lloyd as the butch biker and from Anna Keaveney who charts Mrs Inchbridge's terrifying transformation from a grieving, childless wife into a nappy-clad, floor-crawling baby.
Ayckbourn offers nought for our comfort, but his skill lies in saying unpalatable things in a palatable way. He makes the trip to Scarborough bracingly worthwhile."
(Country Life, 16 May 1991)
The Games People Play (by Charles Spencer)
"As Alan Ayckbourn gets older, his plays get odder. The man who was once dismissed by the snootier critics as a lightweight boulevardier has become one of our most experimental, not to say disturbing, dramatists.
Last year in Body Language he entered the realms of schlocky science-fiction with a story of decapitation and human head transplants. This year, in Wildest Dreams, which has just opened at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, he takes his audience on a dizzying ride through a dangerous, disorienting world of dungeons and dragons, swords and sorcery.
Don't be fooled by the mystic trimmings, however. Unlike last year's play, Wildest Dreams is firmly rooted in reality. The four central characters - a school teacher and his wife, a kitchen skivvy and a computer-obsessed schoolboy - are sad, inadequate ordinary people who retreat from the rigours of real life by playing one of the role-playing fantasy board-games that have enjoyed such a vogue in recent years. Gathered round a dining-room table in Ayckbourn's familiar suburban territory, they try to fill their empty lives by pretending to be heroes from a world of ersatz romance.
The nervously cringing English master Stanley Inchbridge, for instance, is transformed into Alric, the all-knowing leader in the game. Rick Toller, a deeply disturbed young woman, pretends to be Herwin the Warrior, half-woman, half-machine.
Ayckbourn contrives some wonderfully funny scenes from these unhappy characters, as they enact the absurd rituals of the game, speaking in portentous fake medieval English, before taking a break for tea and sandwiches. But cruelty and fear lie just beyond the audience's increasingly nervous laughter.
The reality his characters are on the run from is truly horrible. The portrait of the Inchbridges' childless marriage is as desolate and heartbreaking as anything in Ayckbourn, while Rick gives a horrifying account of the cruel abuse she suffered as a teenager. And there are far worse monsters than the ones in the fantasy game, including Larry Banks, a husband of psychopathic violence.
It is his wife Marcie, a real life damsel in distress, who precipitates the play's crisis. A dizzy blonde, entirely unaware of the havoc she is creating, she becomes the focus of the other characters' yearning for happier, richer lives; and as the games-players react to the glamorous and mysterious stranger in their midst reality and fantasy become disastrously intertwined.
The play is as harrowing as it is savagely funny, its vision of life quite comfortless. The only character who achieves happiness is Mrs Inchbridge, and she does so at the expense of her sanity. The rest retreat to their game like the victims of shell shock, their wildly improbable dreams of fulfilment cruelly extinguished.
Ayckbourn's production of his own play remains shockingly funny even as the atmosphere becomes darker and more frightening, and his Scarborough company are in fine fettle. Isabel Lloyd is a real find as the monosyllabic Rick, every word, every gesture signalling the hurt within, and at times it is almost unbearable to watch Barry McCarthy and Anna Keaveney as they expose the barren misery of the Inchbridges' marriage.
Rebecca Lacey plays the patronising Marcie with a mindless, Sloaney brightness that sets the teeth authentically on edge, Glyn Grain exudes a terrifying menace as her sadistic husband, and Gary Whitaker has some terrific moments as a schoolboy who believes he's an alien from space. Like a vividly recollected nightmare, I suspect Wildest Dreams will haunt the imagination for a long time to come."
(Daily Telegraph, 8 May 1991)
Theatre (by John Peter)
"Comedy ends where tragedy begins. Alan Ayckbourn is different. He hops across the border and capers around like a clown in a minefield while you in the audience hold your breath. The precise whereabouts of the border have often been disputed. One way of locating it is to see where people such as Shakespeare or Chekhov drop their comic luggage and protective clothing and face the storm.
This would be quite a nice little metaphor, except that when Ayckbourn crosses the border he still carries his comedy equipment, but not to protect himself. In his new play, Wildest Dreams (Stephen Joseph, Scarborough), the sense of terrible vulnerability walks hand in hand with grotesque laughter. Once again, the camp is set up on the uncertain slope which leads from the English middle-middle to lower-middle class.
Stanley, a schoolmaster, and Hazel, who works at a building society (Barry McCarthy and Anna Keaveney), are a childless couple living under the sign of the menopause, and the prurient, beady eyes of Hazel's brother Austen (Peter Laird), a VAT inspector, with whom they share a house and who pursues them with an endless flow of ghastly bonhomie and lectures on etymology. Here the couple play Dungeons & Dragons with Warren (Gary Whitaker), a schoolboy who is hounded by that familiar Ayckbourn figure, the off-stage mother, and who thinks he's an Alien; and Rick (Isabel Lloyd), a withdrawn, laconic girl of uncertain sex who has been deserted by her parents. Everyone is lonely, persecuted, and quietly going bonkers, and there are 15 shopping days till Christmas.
Ayckbourn is perfectly at home here, cracking his shockingly hilarious jokes in this desolate landscape of unhappiness, incomprehension, dim people, dim horizons and dogged joviality. He has an unerring feel for the claustrophobia of a lost marriage which had never been anywhere in the first place, and in which the partners know too much about each other but not enough about themselves.
Where to go from here? The not-too-convincing arrival of Rick's friend, a smart young blonde on the run from her husband, provides a catalyst but not a solution. Ayckbourn knows that there's no escape: no way out, only a way in. If you could never have a baby, retaliate by literally retreating into babyhood, mewling and puking your way into irresponsibility. Wear protective clothes. Accept your scarred and seared sexuality. Tolerate the dim-witted world which thinks you're "normal" after all. Celebrate Christmas: retreat to a minefield where nobody will follow you.
Ayckbourn's ending is frightening and slightly bizarre, rather in the way of Pinter's The Homecoming: it's the nightmare made flesh, the terror in the middle-class lounge. It is a piece of cunning surrealist improbability which nags at your memory because it pictures something that lurks on the nether side of the subconscious. This is the kind of brilliant comedy of cruelty, like Just Between Ourselves and Woman in Mind, which can only be written by someone deeply compassionate."
(Sunday Times, 12 May 1991)
Wildest Dreams (by Martin Rutherford)
"This is the first time that I have seen an Alan Ayckbourn play on his home ground of Scarborough. Ideas, jokes and characters in the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round pop up all over the place, which is what Ayckbourn is about. Wildest Dreams is his 42nd full-length play. It is a bit long and doubtless will be refined before reaching London, but it is still worth seeing in its raw state. The basic idea is to juxtapose a quasi-supernatural board game with someone playing a more sophisticated game on a computer. Eventually they may hit the same target, though what that is remains obscure.
"The Game," as it is called, consists of four players sitting round a board with a set of primitive figures. Between them the players and the figures may move as the spirit takes. It is is played regularly every Thursday evening under the aegis of the schoolteacher, Stanley Inchbridge, and his wife, Hazel. Or at least it is until an outsider intervenes in the form of the blonde, Marcie Banks, for whom Stanley falls. Hazel reacts by reverting to babyhood.
In the background, one of the younger players is communing with spirits through his computer. There is a good deal about family relations, though it is not always clear who is related to whom and how. Hazel and Stanley regret not having had children of their own: perhaps the game is a substitute. Stanley also has a curious brother-in-law called Austen who appears to have jinxed their honeymoon by following them round the Norfolk Broads with a camera. Austen pursues Stanley, the English teacher, still with a series of linguistic challenges like what is the other meaning of the word "fugue". The brother-in-law subsequently disappears from the plot for no very obvious reason.*
On another part of the stage is a breaking marriage. Marcie, the blonde, is taking refuge from a pugilistic husband. She says in passing, again for no obvious reason, that both her parents are MPs. A further mystery is the house wherein she finds herself. It appears to belong to an old schoolfriend - one of the players of the game - who has inherited it from her family, but chooses to live in the basement; the computer whizz-kid lives up in an attic. More family symbolism, no doubt.
If you ask how all this all this hangs together, the answer is "loosely". There is plainly a link between the primitive nature of the game and the hi-tech almost extraterrestrial pursuits of the computer. Equally there is a kind of dyslexic linguistic game going leading to confusions between tumulus and cumulus and a splendid of-the-cuff definition of "punctilious": nit-picking. An orgu, we learn, is a "hardy specimen of limited intelligence, either discarded or occasionally kept as a pet".
Perhaps intelligence, in the pure sense of the word, is the theme. Ayckbourn has used modern technology on stage before: the electronics in his first London play, Mr Whatnot. Appropriately this production is sponsored by ICI Computer Systems Ltd.
Barry McCarthy as Stanley is a wonderfully puzzled schoolmaster. Rebecca Lacey does her best to make sense of the wholly incomprehensible part of Marcie. Ayckbourn directs."
(Financial Times, 8 May 1991)
*Austen suffers a stroke in the play as a direct result of an on-stage confrontation with Stanley and is hospitalised.
Puzzling Fantasies In Pieces (by Benedict Nightingale)
"There is a bee in Alan Ayckbourn's bonnet, and it is growing larger, louder and, given his profession, more peculiar. Over-indulging in fantasy, he tells us, is destructive. It is getting hard to leave his plays without a vague feeling of having been lectured by a butcher on the perils of beef and the virtues of carrots.
In both Invisible Friends and Woman in Mind day-dreams somehow manage to evolve into nightmares, leaving one victim imagining herself thrown out of her own home by phantoms. Wildest Dreams repeats the warning, but in more extreme terms and with some surely unintended results.
"Shall we proceed, Elric, 0 wise leader?" asks a voice from beside the only lamp in the murky suburban living-room. "Yes," comes a reedy reply. To the Mountains of Ug, or to the Virgin Ruler of the Fish People. It is soon clear that the people poised over their board are a queer lot. Why else should they be so addicted to Dungeons and Dragons?
Stanley, or Elric, turns out to be wanly married to Hazel, a wife every Ayckbourn initiate will recognise. She shifts from remorse to rancour, variously blaming her ennui on him, herself and their joint failure to have children. Warren is a bashful adolescent in the process of convincing himself he is a genius from another galaxy. The fourth, "Rick", is actually Alice. She lives in isolated squalor and is, it seems, trying to escape from her name, her gender and the memory of a stepfather whose voice spookily echoes from the flies. For a successful West End dramatist, Ayckbourn has often tackled dodgy subjects; but until now not sexual abuse or lesbianism.
He treats them sensitively enough, both as author and director. The trouble is not the evening's tact, but its plausibility. It is all very well to introduce a dramatic catalyst in the form of an MP's daughter on the run from a violent husband and, in doing so, to suggest that nice, unthinking people can wreak emotional havoc.
But Marcie, as she is called, manages too speedily and obviously to send the fantasists spiralling still further into the clouds. A lovelorn Warren, Gary Whitaker, decides his obstructive mother is an inferior species and pens her up in a home-made gulag. Stanley, too, falls for Marcie, precipitating Hazel back to her infancy.
Perhaps the doubts became irresistible when Anna Keaveney, until then an ordinarily overwrought Hazel, started crawling about in nappies, while Barry McCarthy's Stanley bleated about her incontinence. Perhaps they peaked earlier - when Peter Laird, playing her brother, was abruptly revealed as a perverted snooper, responsible for her marital woes; or when Isabel Lloyd's Rick took just two karate chops to rout the husband who had terrorised Rebecca Lacey's Marcie. Either way, the question could not be avoided: should an attack on wishful thinking itself be as unrealistic as this contrives to be?
Yet only Ayckbourn would have let Marcie reply with quite such devastating amiability to the elderly Stanley's abject proposals: "You see, by the time I was an age when I'd need looking after, you'd be dead." The picture may be far from seamless, and the jigsaw puzzle as a whole need some recutting; but there are plenty of striking pieces."
(The Times, 8 May 1991)
It's All In The Games (by Paul Taylor)
"Where, apart from in a psychiatric unit or a queue for the Samaritans, would you be likely to find the following collection of people: a woman who imagines her husband is unfaithful and regresses to nappy-wetting babyhood; a computer-mad sixth former who believes he's a superior-race alien; a girl who was sexually abused as a teenager and is now a repressed lesbian holed up in a dingy basement flat; and a young woman on the run from a violent husband? As some of you will have guessed, these clues point powerfully to a new comedy by Alan Ayckbourn.
It's been a critical cliché for some time now that Ayckbourn's plays are getting darker and less naturalistic. From the above list, you could deduce that he is busy putting this process to the brink of self-parody. What's odd, though, about Wildest Dreams (just premiered in the author's own production at Scarborough) is the way it keeps backing off from the bleakness that might seem appropriate to the material. Summarised, the events certainly sound appalling - two of the characters lose their sanity; another is driven to a couple of paralysing strokes; another is disabused of the illusion that he's loved. Except for a few scattered moments, however, the story is played for undiscomfiting laughs, as though it were happiest when disguising itself as high-class sitcom. Amusing, yes, but your emotions feel a bit cheated.
Wildest Dreams revisits an old Ayckbourn theme: the need of the unfulfilled and the injured to retreat into alternative fantasy lives. Stanley Inchbridge (Barry McCarthy), a mousy middle-aged English teacher, and his childless wife Hazel (excellent Anna Keaveney) are made to feel like lodgers by her live-in brother (Peter Laird), an interfering sergeant-majorish bully who even tagged along on their honeymoon and likes to rile Stanley by quizzing him about specially mugged-up recherché words. Together with Warren, the young computer buff, and Rick, the lesbian, the couple find compensation once a week by playing roles in a sci-fi-cum-Tolkien fantasy board-game, conducted in none-too-grammatical archaic English ("Whence now, Xenon?" type thing) and a bit hazy in its rules. At the end of the first half, the participants pour enough accumulated psychic energy into the game to cause an explosion.
Unreality spreads into the rest of their lives with the advent of Marcie (Rebecca Lacey), a posh, well-meaning young gusher who moves in with Rick to escape from her brutal husband. She's quite oblivious of the way her not-insincere but brightly auto-pilot friendliness and concern are misinterpreted by these new acquaintances as sexual encouragement or love. Breezing into their various homes (on Roger Glossop's tripartite set), she leaves mind-warping illusions in her innocent wake, though her relationship with Rick develops into true mutual tenderness.
To bring out the discrepancy between what she is and what they project on to her, Marcie needs to be a believable character in her own right, but she comes across as an implausible device around whom niggling questions hover which spoil your enjoyment. Why, for example, would a girl like this rely so much on Rick's protection? Her father may be an MP, but would that really stop her bringing in the police?
In contrast to Woman in Mind, there's a sense at the end that fantasy is a necessary refuge. All the original players (even Rick, dissatisfied, it seems, with fulfilment) decide to persist with their board-game. Of his gurgling, infantilised wife, Stanley says "she's happier than she's ever been in her whole life. Can that be wrong?" It doesn't say much for her life up to then, though: Wildest Dreams would be stronger if it gave such considerations their full desolate due."
(The Independent, 8 May 1991)
Theatre (by Irving Wardle)
"It is one of the mysteries of theatrical economics that while the West End has been struck by a famine in new plays, there are plentiful stocks rotting away in Scarborough. Perhaps we may never catch up with the annual Alan Ayckbourn harvest - The Revengers' Comedies of 1989, followed by Body Language and now by Wildest Dreams. As I emerged from this last piece, it occurred to me that maybe the same thought had struck Ayckbourn. Why bother to write ambitious pieces if London is going to ignore them when he can produce less taxing material that is sure to entertain his seaside customers?
Wildest Dreams is based on an irresistibly funny idea which takes hold from the opening sight of four spot lit faces bent intently over a board game. They are planning the next move: shall they go East into the Desert of Disappointment, their leader inquires, or South to face their arch-enemy Barlach? "What say you, Hirwin, silent battle-warrior?" "Yes, OK by me," comes from the depths of a bomber jacket. Then the lights reveal the all-wise leader as Stanley, a middle-aged English teacher, and the others as his wife Hazel and his computer-freak pupil Warren who has invented the game. Hirwin is Rick, an abused teenager abandoned by her parents and adopted into the game despite her inability to improvise Hobbitese.
Wildest Dreams marks the theatrical arrival of Dungeons & Dragons, an appetising new comic subject, and you lean forward to see how Ayckbourn will treat it - as an addiction, a form of domestic drama, a means of exploring alternative identities and synthetic mythology, or a stimulus to his own powers of invention. The play involves all of these, but its governing assumption, alas, is merely that the game functions as a compensation for the characters' inadequate lives. The rabbity Stanley (Barry McCarthy) and the childless Hazel are marooned on a shrinking island of marital despair: what a relief for them to escape into the roles of sagacious leader and Idonia, child of many tongues. The same goes for the alienated Warren and the unloved Rick.
However, theatrical craftsmanship dictates that the game should reflect the players' everyday experience. And as it is a melodramatic game, so their humdrum existence also has to be melodramatised. Barlach must invade the living room. Enter the catalytic figure of Marcie, who takes refuge from her brutal husband in Rick's squalid basement before spreading a trail of disaster through the play. Under the author's direction, Rebecca Lacey plays her as a quacking, sugar-coated deb, whom the other characters mysteriously view as an object of romantic desire or jealous loathing, until Rick (Isabel Lloyd) does her battle-warrior number by felling the ogreish spouse with a judo chop.
I was disheartened by the production, which gradually fritters opening expectations away, despite periodic flashes of comic lightning and passages of bravura acting - such as Anna Keaveney's treatment of Hazel's regression from a frustrated middle-aged wife to a gurgling chocolate-smeared tot. This playwright, heaven knows, has done as much as anyone this century to enrich the art of comedy, but I regret his growing tendency - which comes to a head in this piece - to forswear humdrum reality for a world polarised between the bad and the weak, where everything can be solved by biffing the villain on the nose. That, admittedly, can be a satisfying spectacle: but what it satisfies is an appetite for wish-fulfilment no less escapist than the game. I have omitted the brilliantly drawn figure of Stanley's brother-in-law (Peter Laird), an overbearing Customs and Excise man who has encamped on the couple and ruined their marriage. He is comic monster of awesome vitality, firmly rooted in the real world. But he is outside the game."
(The Independent On Sunday, 12 May 1991)
Wildest Dreams Makes A Highly Disturbing Play (by Charles Hutchinson)
"Playing games can only lead to trouble, especially when Alan Ayckbourn is the referee. Expect a comedy, and the man in black mood will blow the whistle, then change the rules in favour of a darker, sadder state of play.
Traditionally, theatre is an arena of dreams, a place to escape from life's problems. Now Ayckbourn presents a play merging the two worlds.
It is December in the Inchbridges' sitting room, in Warren's attic and Rick's greasy basement. These are familiar Ayckbourn acres, the grey middle-class morass of the suburban south.
The Inchbridges plus young guests are hunched over a board and figures on a table. There's Stanley (Barry McCarthy), an English teacher with a brown-cardigan outlook on life, and his mumbling wife Hazel (Anna Keaveney), guilty in midlife at her failure to produce children. Beside them are their regular, friendless visitors, Warren (Gary Whitaker), a schoolboy convinced he is an alien life form, and Rick, real name Alice (Isabel Lloyd), a biker tomboy who believes "No." is a long sentence.
The only light, dim and low, spreads weakly from a table lamp. They are playing games, playing roles, in a variation on Dungeons & Dragons; they make an unhappy foursome joined in weekly unison to live out their fantasies.
Like the board, at first the fantasy characters can be shelved away in a cupboard. But enter Rick's work colleague Marcie (Rebecca Lacey), a pragmatist, whose one indulgence is to shop till she drops.
Fired by her brutal honesty, they find their hiding place seeping into the real world, their dreams coming alive, though not as wished.
Wildest Dreams sees Ayckbourn walking a tightrope between comedy and tragedy, between light and dark, again. But building on the chopped 'n' swapped head scam of last year's Body Language, he employs a fantastical twist to stretch the bounds of his characters' actions.
Warren transforms himself into his alien by wearing a balaclava; Rick, sexually abused by her mother's lover in childhood, at last finds tenderness in the arms of Marcie, who has taken refuge from the thuggish husband (Glyn Grain) in her basement; Stanley declares a pathetic love for Marcie; and, most shocking yet least credible, Hazel, never able to break free of the shackles of her repressive, anally retentive brother (Peter Laird), regresses to childhood.
Although stung by the game, all decide to stay in its clutches.
This is a tale as potentially disturbing as Woman In Mind, with a crust of comedy to ease the digestion, yet the catalyst, Marcie, is a more contrived, glib figure than usual, undercutting the narrative.
Roger Glossop's design, split Into three, makes effective use of the round space, while John Pattison's nerve-tingling music adds black shards to Ayckbourn's bitter-sweet production.
Wildest Dreams is fantastical rather than fantastic."
(Yorkshire Evening Press, 7 May 1991)
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