A Brief History of Women is the story of a man – and only the brilliant Alan Ayckbourn could get away with that. A master wordsmith and plot crafter, Ayckbourn pulls us ito this 4 chapter story and weaves his magic well before we figure out exactly what he is up to.
1925: Anthony Spates (Anthony Eden) is a young man servant (part time) who has been called by the local mucky-mucks to show up at Kirkbridge Manor, Ahem, to attend to the members of the immediate family at their daughter’s engagement party. Anthony slides back and forth between the ballroom where Lady Caroline is viewing the young folk in the company of her soon-to be fellow mother in law, Mrs. Reginald Ffluke (this is the correct spelling) played by Louise Shuttleworth. In the library, the groom, Captain Fergus Ffuke (Laurence Pears) is being held hostage by Lord Edward Kirckbridge (Russell Dixon) and the Lady wants both men front and center forthwith. As Anthony moves to and fro, the ladies get more exasperated, Lord Kirkbridge gets more drunk and defensive, and the groom gets more anxious. Everything comes to a head when Lady K breaches the sacrosanct library and unloads a verbal bucket-load on her husband. The marriage is a sham, from soup to nuts, and she is fed up. As she reaches her peak of frenzy the Lord moves to hit her (not the first time) but he is stopped by Anthony. The scuffle does not end well for the Lord, and the Lady and Anthony create an unspoken bond to remain mum about the actual circumstances. Thus begins their connection.
Over the next three scenes the mansion changes identities. 1945 – it is the Kirkbridge Preparatory School where Anthony, 37, is now a school master. 1965 – it is the Kirkbridge Arts Center and Anthony 57, is the Arts Administrative Director. 1985 – Anthony is 77 and once again being called to the Manor House – now the Kirkbridge Manor Hotel – to fill in while the full-time General Manager is away. It is here that the tale comes full circle and we are all allowed in on Ayckbourn’s secret – that this is where we were intended all along. For today is the day that Lady Kirkbridge retturns to the house for the final time, escorted by her cluless great granddaughter.
While the rest of the cast plays many parts, Anthony remains at the center like the sun. The young farmer’s son making a few extra bob as a butler (the touch of the sound following him from room to room so that we only hear what he hears is a beautiful). Anthony becomes a young school master who is unable to comply with the strict relationship rules that interfere with his love life. Two decades later, he is a worn out Arts Administrative director who is pulled out of his shell because someone looped him into an actual conversation. Finally Anthony is the General Manager who is in the right place at the right time.
Anthony is the chronicler of dignity. He serves the Manor first and the people in it second. Those people are women who reach in and grab a bit of his heart, which he gives willingly, if not successfully. Each encounter hands him off to the next, and the Manor is shepherd to it all. As we witness the last moments of this story we see that this is, indeed, the history of women. All according to the life of Anthony.
The performances here are all exceptional. These are actors who have worked with Ayckbourn before and they know the drill. You will be asked to suspend your own belief and enter into the Ayckbourn world. Where doors that are not visible are opened and closed. Where life can change at the drop of a hat, or perhaps someone’s trousers. Where when souls intertwine it is forever – even if it takes a few decades to make the point.
Praise goes to the logistics as well. The stage at 59E59 is really the size of a postage stamp. The design crew made it look and sound cavernous.
Another treasure of an evening at the theatre thanks to Alan Ayckbourn. And not for nothin’ but this is his 81st play.
A Brief History of Women by Alan Ayckbourn; Directed by Alan Ayckbourn
WITH Russell Dixon, Antony Eden, Frances Marshall, Laura Matthews, Laurence Pears, and Louise Shuttleworth.
Kevin Jenkins (production design) and Jason Taylor (lighting design). Music is composed by Simon Slater. The choreographer is Sheila Carter.
Brits Off Broadway continues at 59E59 Theaters (Val Day, Artistic Director; Brian Beirne, Managing Director) with the US premiere of A BRIEF HISTORY OF WOMEN, written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn. Produced by the Stephen Joseph Theatre, A BRIEF HISTORY OF WOMEN through Sunday, May 27. The performance schedule is Tuesday – Friday at 7:00 PM; Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 PM & 7:00 PM. Performances are at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues). The single ticket prices range from $25 – $70 ($49 for 59E59 Members). Tickets are available by calling Ticket Centralat 212-279-4200 or online at www.59e59.org.