There is an insistent recurring theme, to this year’s summer theatre season at Pitlochry.
Absurd Person Singular (****)
It’s a season preoccupied with class; and if the opening musical, High Society, looks at class and wealth from an American perspective, then two of the other three plays on the midsummer schedule - with Peter Barnes’s Ruling Class still to come - are firmly focussed on the English class system, and its subtle and ever-shifting gradations.
So in Alan Ayckbourn’s 1972 masterpiece Absurd Person Singular, we are invited to consider the apparently irresistible rise of one Sidney Hopcroft, a bullying, tedious and insensitive lower-middle-class entrepreneur.
The play begins in the Hopcrofts’ neat modern kitchen during a Christmas party to which they have invited both the middle-class Jacksons - a fashionable, philandering 1970’s architect and his depressed wife, Eva - and the upper-middle class Brewster-Wrights, he the local bank manager, she a spectacular posh alcoholic.
It proceeds through a legendary second act in the squalid kitchen of the Jacksons’ Scandi-style flat, where everyone else tries obliviously to tidy up the domestic mess, while Eva makes repeated serious attempts at suicide; and ends with a third Christmas in the freezing kitchen of the Brewster-Wrights’ large Victorian house, in which the ascendancy of the increasingly wealthy Hopcrofts is all but complete.
Absurd Person Singular is, in other words, one of the most witty and brilliantly-constructed plays ever written about an England on the cusp of a class system driven entirely by cash; it also offers a searing critique of the rampant sexism, in all classes, that often leaves women bearing the emotional brunt of social change.
Richard Baron’s Pitlochry company handle it superbly from start to finish, with Helen Mallon turning in a notably fine performance as the desperate Eva; and with the help of three excellent sets by Ken Harrison, this Absurd Person Singular careers beautifully towards a conclusion as disturbing as it is hilarious and tragic.
People, by contrast, is set further up the traditional class ladder, in the hall of a crumbling country house in South Yorkshire.
Its chatelaine, the towering and elegant Dorothy Stacpoole, was once a 1970’s supermodel dressed in Hartnell and Balenciaga. Now, though, in gym shoes and a moth-eaten fur coat, she is faced with tough decisions about the future of the house, which can either be turned over to the National Trust, and made into a heritage item for “people” to trudge through, or sold to a sinister property development company called The Concern, who might even shift it to a more “desirable” location in the Home Counties.
Dorothy’s complex struggles with her decision are both amusing and culturally revealing. And while there is some fairly stiff and stereotyped acting all round in Patrick Sandford’s production, the play boasts such a wonderful physical transformation scene before the last act - and raises so many interesting questions about our attitudes to heritage, and our relentless fetishisation of the English country house - that it leaves the audience more than satisfied, and thoroughly entertained.
• Both plays in repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until October.