From the sound of it, Alan Ayckbourn and his wife, actor Heather Stoney, have had a brilliant lockdown. As a fundraiser for the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, they have recorded an audio play, performing all the parts – from teenagers to pensioners – and creating all the sound effects themselves. It’s as silly and enjoyable as it sounds.
Even if the play isn’t world-beating – Sam and Milly announce they’re splitting up after 25 years, which has consequences for three generations of their family – the sense of joy coming through the headphones is irresistible.
Ayckbourn, not a fan of filmed theatre, decided an audio play was the next best thing to actually being in an audience. He found this play on a shelf, he says, and dusted it off, though some of that dust remains resolutely clinging to the characters, their attitudes and their dialogue.
And although there are real highlights – Stoney’s hideously overbearing matriarch Ella is a fantastically rich creation, full of comic lines and contradictory attitudes – other characters come across a bit more thinly.
Still, Ayckbourn rustles up a gentle romance based around garden centres for the two younger characters, in contrast to the rocky relationships of their forebears, and he shows warmth and sympathy towards a generation having to deal with harridan boomers, the climate crisis and all the other manifold joys of being young.
His 84th play, Anno Domino is not going to trouble his greatest works. But in the middle of a global catastrophe, Ayckbourn’s world of marriage and manners and pure normality – a reminder of a particular kind of life and laughter – could hardly be more comforting.