A Brief History Of Women: World Premiere Reviews

This page contains a selection of reviews from the world premiere production of Alan Ayckbourn's A Brief History Of Women at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, in 2017. All reviews are the copyright of the respective publication and / or author. For reviews from the New York premiere of the play, click here.

A Brief History of Women - ‘tender and elegiac’
(The Stage)
Alan Ayckbourn’s 81st play is a tender and elegiac return to form
At 78, Alan Ayckbourn is having another prolific year. This is his second world premiere to be presented in as many months. The Divide - a dystopian, futuristic six-hour epic in two parts divided critics at the Edinburgh International Festival, with A Brief History of Women Ayckbourn is on more familiar and satisfying territory - this is another of his beautifully mapped memory plays
For his annual production at his home theatre at Scarborough, he is expertly directing his work himself, unlike in Edinburgh. The play charts with delicacy, verve and wit the life of an ordinary man across 60 years – between the ages of 17 and 77 - and the women he encounters along the way. With one he steals his first furtive kiss, another who turns herself into a human firework, while another tutors him to be the hind legs of the panto horse she fronts.
As ever, Ayckbourn has set himself a technical and logistical challenge - and it’s impressively met. The same country house setting provides the backdrop for the passing years, so that the building itself becomes another evocative character in the play. It evolves from an aristocratic homestead - where the stepdaughter of the grouchy landowner is holding her engagement party in the opening act, set in 1925 - to a posh preparatory school in 1945, to a local arts centre in 1965, and finally to a country hotel in 1985.
"They never forget you, houses," says a character at the end of the play, remembering their own long history there. And nor will I easily forget the play that Ayckbourn has crafted around this house.
As both director and writer, Ayckbourn is a dab hand at solving theatrical puzzles, orchestrating the action in several locations at once, as we move between hallway and study to ballroom and garden.
The design, by Kevin Jenkins, and the sound and music cues of Simon Slater keep the action flowing seamlessly between not just the different rooms but the different time periods, with simple adjustments of furniture, floor coverings and soundtrack.
Dysfunctional marriages, as is so often the case with Ayckbourn, feature prominently on the dramatic menu, but here there's also a poignant re-awakening of romantic possibilities in the tender portrait of Anthony Spates' progress, from a farmboy-turned-house servant to a local school teacher, to the administrator of the arts centre and, finally, the manager of the hotel.
Antony Eden plays him at each stage of his life with eagerness, dignity and grace. The other five actors, who each portray a different character in each of the play's four acts, create intricately differentiated people with chameleon-like cleverness.
There's a lot of loss and longing in this journey, but the play's elegiac, reflective tone proves both moving and liberating as it reaches an ending of haunting beauty.
(Mark Shenton, The Stage, 5 September 2017)

A Brief History Of Women (The Press)
Easily bored in his early acting days in Scarborough, Alan Ayckbourn liked to scare himself to keep matters interesting on stage. Not ideal for his fellow cast members maybe, as he later acknowledged, but it led him to finding more fulfilment in writing and directing plays and in turn providing stimulation for his actors.
In his 81st play in his 60th anniversary year at the Stephen Joseph Theatre - and his 58th year as a playwright - he has "scared" himself once more by writing an elegiac, epic memory play with 21 characters, spanning 60 years and the four lives of a house that is given the central character status in his canon for the first time.
Not only four lives and four interlinking stories, in 1925, 1945, 1965 and 1985, but also four parts make up the Round stage, whose transformations are beautifully choreographed with typical Ayckbourn flair as "no-one should be subjected to just watching furniture being moved".
In an echo of Ayckbourn's revival of
Taking Steps this summer, there are no doors on Kevin Jenkins's open-plan design, keeping the sound effects desk busy in tandem with the chameleon cast's mime skills as they move between (initially) the hallway, study, ballroom and garden.
As Kirkbridge Manor changes from Twenties' grand country house, to permanently cold Forties' girls' prep school, to hard-up Sixties' arts centre to plush Eighties' hotel, so too do the roles and mores of men and, more especially women, as signified by the play's title.
By the nature of being staged as four 30-minute sections, the history is indeed brief, but the accumulative effect is for Ayckbourn's play to acquire a tragi-comic depth, where the one constant figure, Anthony Spates, is one of those unremarkable, self-effacing men to whom life happens as farm boy and part-time footman, love-struck teacher, weary administrator and gently greying manager.
Played with quiet grace by Antony Eden - the stand-out turn in
Taking Steps - Spates ages from 17 to 77, from being a servant whose first kiss is tenderly planted on him by the squiffy Lady Caroline Kirkbridge (York actress Frances Marshall in her impressive SJT debut), second wife of a misogynist aristocratic monster (Russell Dixon).
That is the moment that lifts
Brief History beyond period parody. From there, the fireworks truly spark on Bonfire Night in 1945 in an explosive finale like none before in an Ayckbourn play amid the insufferable pain of wartime loss. Ayckbourn (aided by Dixon in caustic dame mode and Laurence Pears as an earnest Leftie) has fun satirising pantomime and stroppy right-on actors in Part Three and then addresses patronising old-age stereotyping in Part Four, before supplying a Chekhov-style haunting finale linking all four parts together.
Laura Matthews and Louise Shuttleworth join in the cast's relish of recalling the old days of constant role changes in weekly rep, just one of the play's myriad pleasures. Nevertheless, one national reviewer had it that latter-day Ayckbourn is more to be endured than enjoyed. Balderdash!
At 78, he is writing and directing with as much wit, insight, originality and mischief as ever, still surprising, still setting himself theatrical puzzles, still so spot-on about the arts, education, marriage, romance, loss and life's vicissitudes for men and women, but now with added reflection and humane sagacity. Play number 81 is a brief history of Ayckbourn in one play.

(Charles Hutchinson, The Press, 12 September 2017)

A Brief History Of Women (The Times)
Has Alan Ayckbourn gone all Downton Abbey on us? At the start - the frankly rather poor start - of this, his 81st play, it appears he has. We are at a party in a grand country house, Kirkbridge Manor, in 1925. As the lady of the house knocks back gin cocktails, her much older husband barks out misogynist intolerance in his study. The patriarchal status quo gets a blunt drubbing, although things become more interesting when the 17-year-old footman, Spates, gets his first kiss from Lady Caroline after saving her from Lord Edward’s violent rage.
A Brief History of Women follows Spates at 20-year intervals through the next 60 years at Kirkbridge Manor, it becomes progressively more funny, more tender, more Ayckbourn. In 1945 it’s a girls’ school and Spates is a teacher having a clandestine romance with a touchy-feely fellow teacher who, uh-oh, keeps having visions of her dead fiancé. In 1965 it’s an arts centre, run by Spates, who’s on hand to comfort the wife of the pantomime dame who finds her husband rehearsing undressed with the principal boy. And in 1985 Spates is the retired manager of Kirkbridge Manor Hotel, welcoming back a 98-year-old Lady Caroline.
On one level, it’s a knockabout. Russell Dixon excels as the outspoken Welsh headmaster; as the panto dame whose right-on leading man rebels at the “fascist Tory propaganda” of his Jack and the Beanstalk. The cast of six segue well between characters and tones throughout. And if Ayckbourn hasn’t entirely found the right tragi-farcical tone to sell us on the death-by-fireworks of the second part - like a lot of recent Ayckbourn, it’s one last redraft away from fulfilling all its huge promise - his staging of the pell-mell of school life, with characters rushing through the invisible doors of Kevin Jenkins’s four-room set, is always lively.
It’s in its second half, though, that the evening reveals itself to be a real play. In all the scenes, most characters are on their own trip — the bickering teachers, the gossiping toffs, the self-involved theatre folk. Ayckbourn knows that moments of real connection between people are hard-won and hard to forget. He finds his perfect tone as Spates finds romance as the back half of a pantomime cow; as he looks back on how this house has defined him in a final scene that suddenly becomes tear-inducingly tender.
The sublime wins out against the so-so, all of it enabled by a superb, unselfish central turn by Antony Eden as Spates. Stiff-backed at 17, disappointed and paunchy at 57, accepting at 77, he gives us an uncynical but unsentimental depiction of a man hanging on to decency while the world does its cartwheels around him. Wobbly start; beautiful finish.

(Dominic Maxwell, The Times, 7 September 2017)

'Mischievous & Humane' - A Brief History Of Women (The Reviews Hub)
Ingenious, mischievous and ultimately humane,
A Brief History of Women is proof that, in his 58th year of writing plays, Alan Ayckbourn is still able to find new ways of entertaining us for two hours and making us think a bit as well. He makes two claims for his latest play: that it’s the first time he’s written a play with a house as the central character and that it’s the story of an ordinary man and the extraordinary women in his life. And, remarkably, both claims are true!
The house in question is Kirkbridge Manor. The play is divided into four parts at 20-year intervals as the manor undergoes many changes of role. Present throughout is Anthony Spates, the “ordinary man”. At 17 in 1925, he is a local farm boy, a very well mannered one, who serves as part-time footman when extra staff are needed by Lord and Lady Kirkbridge, such as now, Lady Cynthia’s engagement party. By 1945 the manor is a girls’ school, he is a teacher and the occasion is a rather over-explosive November 5th. At the age of 57, as administrator of Kirkbridge Arts Centre, he plays his part in a disastrous pantomime rehearsal and finally, as Kirkbridge Manor Hotel opens as a pastiche of former glories, he is the retired manager (he is 77, after all) brought in to welcome some special guests.
There is some unevenness of tone - the opening section’s portrayal of the appalling upper classes goes beyond caricature - but the character of Anthony Spates makes the whole thing believable. By a typically paradoxical cast of mine Ayckbourn creates a character of breath-taking normality, kindly, rational and self-effacing, who somehow plays a key role in a dramatic series of life-changing, sometimes life-ending events.
In Antony Eden he finds the ideal interpreter of the part. Of course, we have to suspend disbelief when he appears as a 17-year-old, but the gauche correctness of his bearing is perfect. The aging between the central scenes, from 37 to 57, is subtle and totally convincing, and throughout he is the epitome of unselfish decency - and, oddly enough, not at all boring.
In each part Ayckbourn surrounds Spates with three female and two male characters, all played by the same five actors, each of the women taking her turn as one of the “extraordinary women” in his life. Only Russell Dixon’s wordless turn as a breathless porter in a horrendous black wig in the final play is an obvious case of finding parts for all the cast.
One of the joys of this play is the sort of anticipation and recognition theatre goers used to experience in the days of weekly rep: what will he or she be playing this time? So Russell Dixon has the chance to deliver three very different bravura performances: the grotesque Lord Edward Kirkbridge, misogynist and anti-radical, the pompous Welsh headmaster and, best of all, Dennis Dunbar, camping it up as panto producer and dame.
Similarly, Frances Marshall, Laura Matthews, Laurence Pears and Louise Shuttleworth all revel in the surprises and contrasts of the script, Shuttleworth, for instance, moving from two acidly self-certain characters in the first half to a woman so modest she prefers playing the front end of the cow to showing her face.
Kevin Jenkins’ transformations of the manor are as clever and as smartly handled as the cast’s changes of character. As the action moves between the various rooms of the manor, Jason Taylor and Simon Slater direct the audience’s attention with impressive precision, every click of a latch meticulously timed, ever conversation fading as a door closes.

(Ron Simpson, The Reviews Hub, 8 September 2017)

Not vintage Ayckbourn, but still worth seeking out (Daily Telegraph)
Even if Alan Ayckbourn produces nothing but duds for the remainder of his days, they won’t diminish his venerated status nor lessen my resolve to seek them out. He has written too much that matters, proved his worth so often, that it hardly weighs in the balance if “late Ayckbourn” is more to be endured than enjoyed.
After his punishing dystopian epic at Edinburgh, The Divide, he’s back in Scarborough and on more familiar, gently tragi-comic, socially relatable terrain. His 81st play lives up to its title in being (relatively) short-lived, but it’s so sketchily written and baldly schematic that, for all its underlying ambition and innocuous entertainment value, it put me in mind of that gag in A Midsummer Night’s Dream about the “tedious brief scene of young Pyramus and his love Thisbe”.
The grand central conceit here is to observe the mutating “character” of an English country house across a span of 60 years, from 1925 to 1985 – and the changing mores of men and women, particularly (obviously) women, in the process. There’s an unmistakable tinkle of Downton Abbey in the first of four parts, in which a fatally wounding spat erupts between a sexist old aristocratic pig (Russell Dixon’s Lord of “Kirkbridge Manor”) and his gin-sozzled young wife (a gold-digger standing to inherit nothing) during a jazzy engagement party for the latter’s awful daughter.
“First they got the vote, what comes next? Socialism!” roars the caricature curmudgeon, and there are plenty more heavily expository lines where that came from. Dancing attendance on this monster – but gallantly helping the beast’s pretty, put-upon spouse, who rewards him with his first kiss – is a casual servant called Spates.
Played (rather implausibly, given he’s supposed to be 17) by thirtysomething actor Antony Eden, this marginal figure lingers improbably on in this bucolic neck of the woods. He pops up as a lovelorn teacher when the manor becomes a girls prep school, circa 1945, then as a lonely arts centre administrator embroiled in a mid-Sixties panto rehearsal (complete with adulterous Dame and bolshie young leading man). Finally, he’s the old-world courteous retired manager of a posh hotel, greeting the former Lady Caroline (Frances Marshall again) who now suffers from cruelly patronised infirmity but still remembers that kiss.
“In my beginning is my end. In succession houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,” run those lines from TS Eliot’s The Four Quartets. Little of that poem’s numinous poignancy is to be found in this workaday affair (much encumbered by the need for the diligently versatile cast of six to mime every door-opening and closing). Yet despite itself, simply because it attests all the same to Ayckbourn’s own story of tenacity, longevity and attachment to place, it stirs something like gratitude and admiration.
(Dominic Cavendish, Daily Telegraph, 7 September 2017)

Ayckbourn’s 81st play’s delightful, hilarious and tender house party (The Scarborough News)
A Brief History of Women is Alan Ayckbourn’s 81st play - it’s a wonder he - and the reviewers - have anything left to say.
But this play proves he has - and commentators are again reaching for the lexicon to find new words to describe how good a playwright Ayckbourn is.
It is, to be honest, not the most auspicious of titles. Is Sir Alan giving us the lowdown on ladies’ underwear?
Or a potted history of the women’s movement? Neither as it happens.
A Brief History of Women is a glorious celebration of women in all their glamorous, capricious, intelligent, witty, steadfast, beautiful glory.
And a commentary on slow, shy, emotionally repressed, bullying folly of men.
It spans 60 years and follows the fortunes of Anthony Spates from humble servant and farm boy at the ‘big house’ in 1925 to his retirement from his job as hotel manager in 1985.
He is likeable, shy, intelligent, considerate and kind - which makes him a bit of a babe magnet.
He is also the opposite of the other pompous, fickle, curmudgeons which populate this play.
The audience long for a happy ending for Anthony - you will have to see it to find out whether he gets his happy ever after.
It would also spoil the experience - and some of the biggest laughs the play has to offer - to reveal any major plot lines in Anthony’s journey.
The play is also the story of a house - it starts life as the country seat of aristocracy, becomes a girls’ school after World War Two, then an arts centre in the 1970s and finally a hotel. Anthony works at them all in their different incarnations.
If it rings any bells about modern development of revered buildings in real life then it is meant to.
A Brief History of Women, as Ayckbourn always intended, is an actor’s dream. The six-strong cast - all except Antony Eden who plays Anthony Spates - get to flex their considerable muscle in a range of roles.
Step forward scene-stealer Russell Dixon. His panto dame brought the house to its feet. They roared and cheered - and then, a scene later, laughed again as he shuffled into the room as an aged bell-principal boy among other things.
Laurence Pears ranges from aristocratic war hero to a stroppy socialist akin to Wolfie in Citizen Smith. Laura Matthews plays equally brilliantly an emotionally fragile teacher, an Estuary English speaking stage manager and a plum-in-the-mouth upperclass twitette. Louise Shuttleworth is a snob, Bletchley Park ‘gal’, middleclass housewife and hotel manageress. Frances Marshall plays an aristocrat, teacher and panto principal boy among other things.
They are all wonderful.
It is Eden’s job to convince the audience that he has aged from fresh-faced innocent to life-worn seventy-something. He does it with seeming ease.
He is the emotional core of the play and anchors it - giving the audience something to cling to while life spins out of control around them.
It’s a whirlwind of war, loss, love, tragedy, horror, infidelity, betrayal and change.
A Brief History of Women is at times hilariously funny and deeply moving. It is, too, heart-renderingly tender.
The season so far at the Stephen Joseph has been out- standing - and
A Brief History of Women has been fired into that starry firmament like a rocket - and will blaze bright
for many a night.
(Sue Wilkinson, The Scarborough News, 7 September, 2017)

A Brief History Of Women (British Theatre Guide)
Over 58 years of playwriting, Alan Ayckbourn has earned a reputation as one of the UK’s leading exponents of stage comedy - and deservedly so. However, we mustn’t overlook the formal inventiveness of his plays, nor the dark undercurrents that run through them.
Following the critical backlash to
The Divide, a sprawling six-hour epic set in a dystopian future, A Brief History of Women signals a return to more familiar comedic territory. However, the Bard of Scarborough’s experimental spirit remains intact, for his 81st play presents audiences with yet another adventure in theatrical space and time.
Taking Steps (1979), which runs at the Stephen Joseph Theatre until 5 October, the action of Ayckbourn’s latest play is confined to a single house. The building in question, Kirkbridge Manor, becomes a character in its own right, playing a crucial role in the life of one ordinary man. Told in four parts across four different time periods, we watch Anthony Spates (Antony Eden) as he matures from a 17-year-old servant in 1925 into a 77-year-old hotel manager in the mid-1980s.
The play is also concerned with the extraordinary women who have played an important part in Anthony’s personal development: Lady Kirkbridge (Frances Marshall), an unhappily married aristocrat; Miss Ursula Brock (Laura Matthews), a psychologically fragile school teacher; and Gillian Dunbar (Louise Shuttleworth), the kind-hearted wife of an amdram lothario.
There is much to enjoy in Ayckbourn’s latest play, but the episodic nature of the piece results in a slightly uneven production. The evening gets off to a bumpy start with a scene set in a 1920s manor house. Although I was touched by the tender moment shared by Anthony and Lady Kirkbridge, I bridled at the characters’ heavy-handed discussion of social mobility and the two-dimensional villainy of Lord Kirkbridge (Russell Dixon).
Things improve considerably in the second scene, which focuses on Anthony’s doomed relationship with a fellow teacher in immediate post-war Britain. Here, Ayckbourn gives us a vivid glimpse into the hustle and bustle of life in a girls’ school, and he manages to combine pathos and black comedy to winning effect. The third scene, which revolves around rehearsals for a pantomime in a 1960s arts centre, is equally strong.
The cast, many of whom also appear in Taking Steps, do sterling work in their various roles. Although Antony Eden makes for an unconvincing 17-year-old, I was moved by the quiet dignity he brings to the central character in his older incarnations. On the other end of the subtlety spectrum is Russell Dixon, who comes close to stealing the show with his turn as an outrageously camp amdram enthusiast.
The female cast members - Frances Marshall, Laura Matthews and Louise Shuttleworth - deliver heartfelt performances as Anthony’s three love interests, but also demonstrate versatility in a range of smaller comic roles. Equally fine is Laurence Pears, who makes a strong impression as a hulking PE teacher.
Kevin Jenkins’s intelligent set design skilfully recreates different time periods through small adjustments in props and furniture. Simon Slater’s sound work is similarly evocative, particularly during the first scene where the reveries of a 1920s party are suggested through background music.
A Brief History of Women is not top-drawer Ayckbourn, but it possesses many of the shining qualities that audiences have come to expect in his work.
(James Ballands, British Theatre Guide, September 2017)

All reviews are copyright of the respective publication.