Man of The Moment: World Premiere Reviews
Cruel Satire By The Swimming Pool (by Michael Schmidt)
"Alan Ayckbourn's new play, Man of the Moment, at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, Scarborough, takes us to Spain - the English Spain of holiday villas where the nouveau well-heeled buy sunshine, servants and "style". The scene is the patio and pool area (with a real swimming pool that plays a crucial role in the drama) of a villa owned by Vic Parks and his wife Trudy.
Vic is a television personality with an ill-concealed skeleton in his cupboard. Trudy, his second wife and mother of his two children, endures his philandering and struggles to keep the skeleton out of sight.
Vic's manager Kenny Collins, a languid fellow, at once promoter and parasite, is visiting along with the ambitious television producer Jill Rillington, who has come to film the pilot programme in her series "Their Paths Crossed". She has unearthed Mr Douglas Beechey from Purley, Surrey, the victim - or beneficiary? - of Vic's hidden crime. She intends to pit the two men against each other and contrast their lifestyles, marriages and attitudes.
The play opens with Jill (Lynette Edwards) setting up her programme. She is the (media) artist, ostensibly after Truth, but really out to establish herself. She exploits several voices: she purrs and simpers for the television audience, bellows at her bolshy camera crew, seduces her interviewees, and her sotto voce, in which she expresses her anxieties, is pure acid. "This is the real world where nothing is as it seems," she tells the cameras.
The theme is fame, what makes a modern hero and what makes a villain. Ayckbourn is laying bare the nature of the medium of television and the values it nourishes and debases.
It would be invidious to tell much more of the plot. Ayckbourn's is an art of withholding. Like a writer of crime fiction, he lets out suggestions piece by piece, parts of a jigsaw of character and plot, until they compose an hilarious and at the same time tragic picture. Tragedy in an age of pragmatism and self-interest can emerge only through comedy.
The first act is among the funniest Ayckbourn has written - each laugh wrung from us is precise and cruel. There are the brutal inanities and inadvertent self-revelations in dialogue. Ayckbourn is the most accurate creator of contemporary speech around, with an unerring ear for clichés of attitude and language.
The complexities of this most risky of plots are formally inventive and riotously satirical. A dark human vision stays with us when the laughter dies. Ayckbourn is so effective a satirist because he implicates us in the values and savageries of his characters.
At the heart of Man of the Moment he has planted the inscrutable Mr Beechey ("Call me Douglas"), a chinless suburban innocent who remains incomprehensible to the others. Jon Strickland plays the part with impeccable timing and a faultless gormlessness which undermine Jill's plans and Vic's arrogance. His one deep feeling, he confides, is a hatred of evil. He is the insistent, ineffectual voice of tedious decency, untouched by the materialism and sexual hunger of the other characters.
Simon Chandler plays Kenny, Vic's corrupt and knowing manager, as Mr Beechey's foil, corrupt and knowing, with a lazy, class-bound insouciance. These two childless and morally consistent figures, one impotently decent, the other harmlessly heartless, represent the opposing principles of the play. Ayckbourn's direction brings each character in the bright void of the villa world into three-dimensional existence.
Man of the Moment is worth travelling as far as necessary to see. It combines the best of early and late Ayckbourn, the side-splitting laughter, the heart-stopping pessimism. It is impossible not to love Ayckbourn's hateful world."
(Daily Telegraph, 12 August 1988)
Man Of The Moment (by Martin Hoyle)
"It is all too likely that a convicted thief should endear himself to the great British public; all too feasible that he should become a media pundit, a cross between Parkinson and Jimmy Saville; all too probable that he should live in luxury, tended by suave managers and courted by ambitious TV directors. And all too consistent that a bright BBC lady should arrange a meeting after 14 years between this ex-thug and the wet little bank clerk who "had a go", causing the raider's shotgun to blast the face of a pretty girl hostage.
This is Alan Ayckbourn territory, bristling with such familiar landmarks as social embarrassment, bullying brutality confronting ineffectual decency, the hilariously inadequate language of the English under emotional pressure, and sudden death. Not since Way Upstream has the vision of society been blacker, the humour more sardonic (A Small Family Business is a cheerful farce in comparison). Not for some time has Ayckbourn produced such a compact, tightly-constructed play. Never has he looked more like the Ben Jonson of the Welfare State.
Ex-criminal telly star Vic is depicted by Peter Laird with the appearance of Ronnie Biggs, the affable media cockney of Derek Jameson (well, almost) and the ingratiating bonhomie of Bruce Forsyth. It soon emerges that he is a viciously unkind autocrat with a tendency to sanctimonious self-justification. Speaking of his crime he piously clasps his hands in prayer: "A miracle she didn't lose an eye - I thank God for that." A pause. "She did lose an ear, though," wavers the wimpish bank-clerk with rabbity earnestness. "An ear's not the same as an eye," snaps Vic. The house rocks with laughter until suddenly realising the cruelty that Ayckbourn has insidiously persuaded us to accept.
In a masterly unravelling of the plot the author leads us to chortle at the descriptions of the little man's dottily neurotic wife with her dislike of going out and being stared at; a running gag until we casually learn she is the mutilated hostage. Ayckbourn's comedy increasingly manages to freeze the smile on our lips; doffing the jester's cap the clown reveals horns. To the play's basic paradox - that a Press acclaimed hero can be forgotten and his life ruined while the villain achieves fame and wealth - is added the irony that virtue is unattractively embodied by the chinless solemnity of suburban weediness. This is brilliantly personified by Jon Strickland who bridles, gawps and flinches fatuously through what, we slowly realise, is the admirable philosophy of a good man. The violent climax reveals Ayckbourn as an almost religious painter of cruelty versus innocence.
He directs his 35th play impeccably on Michael Holt's sunny villa set, complete with crucial swimming pool, and produces beautiful performances. Lesley Meade, riddled with guilt at her husband's misdeeds, conveys inner agony through deathly, smiling politeness and faltering euphemisms; Simon Chandler, the star's languidly fastidious agent, has never been better; though not quite in focus as a TV narrator, Lynette Edwards is spot-on when bossing the camera-crew or patronising her subject.
The evening belongs to Mr Strickland's stiff Lowry-figure, the stilted little man with no strong views on anything except perhaps evil. "It's often hard to recognise but there's a lot of it about." There is, there is; and Alan Ayckbourn is the joking Manichean prophet of the evil in all of us."
(Financial Times, 15 August 1985)
Heroes And Villains (by Robin Thornber)
"Every year you go to Scarborough for Alan Ayckbourn's latest play - this is his 35th, and 32* have been premiered here in Scarborough - dreading the possibility that this time he will trip up; he can't possibly pull it off again. And each year you come away thinking this is his best yet. It's like doubting that the sun will rise in the east.
I really didn't think he could surpass last year's offering, Henceforward..., which goes into the West End this autumn. But Man Of The Moment is a superb piece of theatre in anybody's terms. And given the imminent Royal gala opening of the Great Train Robbery film, Buster, it's unnervingly topical.
A television faction crew descends on the Spanish villa of a British bank robber who has served his time and been turned into a media celeb with his own do-gooding chat shows. The tough-cookie presenter (Lynette Edwards) is lining up a confrontation with the have-a-go bank clerk who took him on 17 years ago.
The luxurious lifestyle of the brutal but "successful" extrovert and plausible villain (dangerously played by Peter Laird) is achingly contrasted with the simple, stupid, suburban values of the empty idiot (ineffably created by Jon Strickland, pushing his glasses up his long and stringy nose) who took him on. Pushed to say what he feels strongly about, he asserts: "I don't like evil".
Strickland's deferential nice guy can't even envy Laird's bully because he doesn't want sun, sea, or sex, he just needs to be needed by the girl he cares for, even if her beauty went with the shotgun pellets and his momentary tabloid heroism was moved on to the amiable assailant.
This is the paradox that Ayckbourn adores - the little man, decently happy, is boring and dull television while the bad bastard who emotionally batters everyone he (or she) meets enthrals us all. Hard cases are rewarded by our society; softies get stood on.
Strickland's anti-hero hasn't had it with his victim wife for 15 years, and doesn't recognise it when it's offered as some sort of compensation by his attacker's bimbo plaything. The Scarborough audience roared their approval at this abstinent nonchalance, shocking as it was to the trendy interviewer.
Our romantic anti-hero and his attained unattainable dream obviously have something that the glamorous, raunchy, roving anti-villain has never had, wouldn't recognise, and wouldn't know what to do with if he found it.
But even if the play says not much more than wouldn't it be nice if we were nice, it does say some nasty things about how nasty we are to each other and how that nastiness is rewarded and applauded by a nasty society.
There is, for instance, a nasty scene of cruelty to fat girls which was bravely and brilliantly carried off by Shirley Ann Selby as the nanny, and a whole passage about how to manipulate the television interview which must become a classic text for media studies courses: Ayckbourn knows, from his sabbatical sojourn on the South Bank, what it is to he man of the moment.
There's the traditional Ayckbourn device - this time it's half a dozen extras coming on at the last moment - which makes the piece difficult for anyone else to pick up. So my traditional advice is to see it in Scarborough, directed as it should be by the author, before it's travestied by star-studded transfer."
(The Guardian, 12 August 1988)
* By this time, Alan had actually premiered 31 of his 35 plays in Scarborough, rather than the 32 suggested here.
Truly Undervalued Hero (by Jeremy Kingston)
"It is a commonplace that Alan Ayckbourn's comedies have become darker of late - and almost as banal to point out the dark notes in the very earliest plays, 20 or more years ago. But what is apparent in his latest, apparently his 35th, is an increasing readiness to make a definite statement that such and such a way of life is bad. He even makes his meek and unassuming hero use the word evil - not a word we hear often on the modern stage.
His villain is Vic Parks, a complacent thug whose armed raid on a Purley bank 17 years ago was foiled by the unexpected bravery of Douglas, a lowly bank clerk, who became a Press hero for a week.
In the years since then, Vic has made it to the top as a TV chat show host, and though as rotten as ever is now one of society's heroes. It is no coincidence that the play comes at a time when a film about yet another of the Great Train Robbers is scheduled for a Royal performance: Ayckbourn unmistakably sees the veneration of colourful criminals as symptomatic of our society's moral rot.
Douglas, meanwhile, has continued to live obscurely in Purley, married to the girl Vic held hostage, while Vic sunbathes and splashes in the pool of his Mediterranean villa. But when an ambitious TV producer (Lynette Edwards) brings the two together for a new show, Their Paths Crossed, she tries in vain to get Douglas to express envy, rage, revenge or some other televisual emotion, instead of bobbing about good-naturedly, smiling at the man who once fired a shotgun in his wife's face.
"Evil," he replies at last, when asked if there is anything at all he feels strongly about. "It's often hard to recognise but there's a lot of it about."
Ayckbourn blasts the media for not bothering to recognise it in Vic, who is played with slurred, confident charm by Peter Laird, reminiscent of actual personalities it might be wiser not to name. And it is up to Douglas to do a repeat of his Purley heroics which end, as in Way Upstream, with a death by drowning.
There is something of Graham Greene (the novels not the plays) in the way Ayckbourn is moving; without the Catholicism but with the same search for heroes in undervalued men. Jon Strickland's Douglas is an astonishingly full and funny portrait of a stumblebum entirely honest with himself.
"It's a miracle she didn't lose an eye," Vic smugly triumphs. "I thank God for that." And after just the right pause Douglas courteously comments, "She did lose an ear, though." In making us simultaneously laugh and be dismayed by lines like that, Ayckbourn's writing is an unnervingly true as ever."
(The Times, 17 August 1988)
Man Of The Moment (by John Peter)
"Alan Ayckbourn's latest play, Man Of The Moment (Scarborough), is partly inspired by the cheery notion that property is not only theft but robbery. This is the first of Ayckbourn's plays to be set abroad, but its sturdy Englishness is unimpaired: we are in the Spanish holiday villa of Vic Parks (Peter Laird), ex-bank robber and ex-convict, who sprang to television fame with programmes about having gone down the wrong road but now going straight. Vic is entirely unashamed of his past: he's one of those extraordinary working-class Englishmen who combine a cheery, reasonable manner with self-righteousness, brutality and weasel-like cunning. Enter Jill (Lynette Edwards), a TV presenter, pushy, trendily left wing and hard as nails, preparing a programme called Their Paths Crossed, the other participant being Douglas (Jon Strickland), a chinless bank clerk from Purley who, 17 years earlier, tried to tackle Vic during his last job.
Ayckbourn's plays have never been easy to classify and this one is no exception. I would call it a dark moral farce whose targets are the slick mendaciousness of television and the shallow moral and cultural duplicity which it both fertilises and grows from. The writing is so good you hardly notice it's there. Ayckbourn writes pure dialogue, in which words are not "presented" as literature but used as the tools of drama. He knows exactly how people talk, how they use words as weapons, shelter or evasion: his plays have a deceptively simple surface reality, and it's the implications, the unseen undercurrents that carry his meaning.
Once again, he directs his own work with implacable deftness. The acting is excellent, and Michael Holt's inventive set includes a real swimming pool in which people may be waving or drowning or both."
(Sunday Times, 14 August 1988)
The Rewards Of Wickedness (by Paul Arnott)
"By coincidence on the premiere night of Alan Ayckbourn's 35th play, Man of the Moment, a columnist in the Yorkshire Evening Press devoted a large part of his editorial to attacking the glamorisation of the Great Train Robbers. "The Prince and Princess of Wales are to attend a film about Buster Edwards. No wonder the family of Jack Mills are disgusted. Jack Mills - who was he? Just the train guard who was beaten senseless and never fully recovered." A crowd-pleasing view which, doubtless, speaks for many. It is disappointing however to discover that Ayckbourn has nothing more penetrating to say about the ascendancy of "the media natural" than his local paper.
Ayckbourn has chosen the Costa Del Crime as his setting to tell of the charismatic Vic, a former bank robber turned TV celebrity, and Douglas, a former bank clerk who by tackling Vic 17 years before became a national hero for a fortnight. They haven't met since the robbery and Jill, a blindly ambitious and loveless TV producer, is on the spot to record the meeting and sex it up.
The reason that the play, in its current form, doesn't really work is that it is stranded halfway between being a satirical expose of media manipulation and a comic drama doing its best to show evil in action. Because of this the characters are rather stock and often have to act as mouthpieces for the author. Douglas is a goofy clerical type from Purley in a tank-top who hasn't made love to his wife in 15 years. He is, of course, our anti-hero. Jill manages to make him speak one of Ayckbourn's current preoccupations when she begs him to say whether he feels strongly about anything in the world. "Yes. Evil, I suppose. It's often hard to recognise but there's a lot of it about, you know."
Vic is that evil. He is a demi-devil, good to his kids, wicked to everyone else. He asks what's in the programme for Douglas who replies, "I was hoping that this meeting would help to exorcise you." But how wicked is Vic really? Ayckbourn veers dangerously close to saying a criminal is forever corrupt and shouldn't be let near a TV camera.
What is not in doubt is Ayckbourn's brilliant ability to turn a comic moment into a sinister spine-chiller within half a line.
On four or five occasions he pulls his audience up short. The first comes amidst some high comic talk between Douglas and Vic remembering the robbery when it suddenly emerges that Douglas's wife was shot in the face.
More dubious, however, is the author's propensity in recent plays to have his evil characters killed off. This is the third time that Ayckbourn has shown an accidental death innocently brought about which presumably satisfies some deep tribal instinct in his audience. It is a matter of taste, but to me this device is both a rather impotent, unimaginative climax and, in itself, a sinister addition to the author's bag of tricks.
Ayckbourn seems to be moving away from the portrayal of insular stifling middle-class life and towards an attack on corrupted values in the wider society. At present, his characters cannot carry his theme. Neither can his construction. Part of the usual joy of an Ayckbourn is its almost mathematical structure. In this blunt attack on the monster of television celebrity his maths is rather simple and strictly linear in function. Man of the Moment isn't yet a media natural."
(The Independent, 3 June 1985)
Prolific Playwright Of The Moment
"With just one more play to go to equal Shakespeare, Alan Ayckbourn proves he is still the master of his craft with Man of the Moment, his 35th play. The most prolific comedy writer this century is at his wittiest, most cynical and funniest in what may become an Ayckbourn classic.
He has always maintained that if the discerning audiences at the Stephen Joseph Theatre at Scarborough, where all his plays are premiered, like them, then they will be accepted in London. He can have no reservations about his hilarious, yet at times moving, work which is superbly written and expertly directed by the author.
Ayckbourn has branched into a new area for Man of the Moment, the sometimes superficial and false world of television chat shows. Host Jill Rillington, (Lynette Edwards), is searching in vain to find conflict and resentment in an insipid former bank clerk who tackled an armed raider in a bid to protect the girl he loved.
But the clerk, magnificently played by Jon Strickland, explains that had the raid not happened he would not have married the girl of his dreams, for until then she had shown no interest in him. For his part the raider, now living in luxury in Spain, has become a television personality. While his victims lives remain unchanged, he's found fame and fortune. Peter Laird is extremely convincing as this Ronald Biggs-style character.
Daniel Collings has a delightful cameo role as the silent Spanish gardener, bullied by bank robber Vic Parks, while Shirley-Anne Selby also gave a fine performance. Simon Chandler, Doreen Andrew, Peter Forbes, Adam Godley and Lesley Meade, complete the cast of this superb play, designed by Michael Holt with lighting by Mick Thomas and music by Paul Todd.
Ayckbourn now restricts himself to just one new play a year, his premieres in Scarborough are one of the highlights of the town's year."
(The Stage, 18 August 1988)
A Witty Sideswipe At Media Fame (by Jeannie Swales)
"Some 17 years ago a normally mild-mannered bank clerk by the name of Douglas Beechey did a very uncharacteristic thing.
In the midst of a raid at his bank, he tackled and overcame a shotgun armed thug in a balaclava who was holding hostage the girl he loved.
For a short time Douglas became that phenomena so beloved by the national press - the have-a-go-hero.
Feted and lauded wherever he went, people wrote to him asking for photographs and advice. He even had a bravery awards scheme named after him - truly the man of the moment.
Now, Douglas is forgotten while robber Vic Parks, having served his time and, as he sees it, paid his dues, is having his 15 minutes of fame as a chat show host - and fate, in the shape of ambitious TV presenter Jill Rillington, brings them together again.
Alan Ayckbourn's latest play takes a wry look at the nature of fame in a climate where the likes of model Fiona Wright become the subject of media idolatry for their seedy revelations.
With many a sideswipe at the popular media he shows us Vic Parks as a man elevated to celebrity when all he deserved was notoriety.
In generally lighter vein than last year's futuristic Henceforward..., Man of the Moment is nevertheless streaked with black humour.
And the man has lost none of his incomparable wit, well-timed farce, and love of theatrical gimmicks.
Some of the play's funniest moments - and there are many - take place around an on-stage swimming pool, with which designer Michael Holt has excelled himself.
Cleverly lit by Mick Thomas, who effectively evokes the feeling of a hot Mediterranean day from early afternoon through to twilight, Man of the Moment is also directed by Ayckbourn and features original music from Paul Todd.
Jon Strickland plays Douglas, Peter Laird is Vic, and Lynette Edwards plays Jill.
Also taking part are Lesley Meade, Simon Chandler, Daniel Collings, Shirley-Anne Selby, Doreen Andrew, Peter Forbes, Adam Godley, and youngsters Lisa Bailey and Charlotte Kershaw, who share the role of Vic's daughter, Cindy."
(Scarborough Evening News, 17 August 1988)
Comic Relief In The Darkness (by Robert Beaumont)
"The bleaker darker side of Alan Ayckbourn, which has dominated his recent work, is very much in evidence again in his latest play Man Of The Moment, which received its world premiere at Scarborough on Wednesday.
While Man Of The Moment is not as psychologically harrowing as Women In Mind, nor as chillingly pessimistic as Henceforward..., it is a savagely pertinent look at the way society - and most notably the media - chooses its heroes and villains.
With his unerring, and often unnerving perception, Ayckbourn exposes the hypocrisy of a world where true heroes are forgotten and where villains can become international stars.
Ayckbourn's 35th full length play takes a look at the contrasting fortunes of an ignorant, aggressive bank robber, and the quiet, unambitious bank clerk who had foiled his potential raid 17 years previously.
While the robber, an exquisite performance from Peter Laird, emerged from a nine year prison sentence to become a media star, the bank clerk - brilliantly played by Jon Strickland - sank back into obscurity in his beloved home town of Purley after just two years in the limelight.
A horrendously pushy female television presenter (Lynette Edwards) researching her new series of Their Paths Crossed, hits on the bright idea of reuniting the robber and the clerk and arranges a meeting between the two at the robber's opulent Mediterranean villa. To her surprise and joy, the gentle bank clerk agrees.
So the delightful Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round is transformed into a sun blessed villa, complete with all the trimmings, including a swimming pool. Michael Holt's set is exquisite.
On the one level Man Of The Moment is a hilarious pastiche of the ignorant English abroad.
There's the robber himself, the uncouth head of the household, drinking himself into oblivion, and causing misery all around him; there's the mousey wife, permanently in hysterics; there's the overweight nanny, lurching from crisis to crisis; and there's the omnipresent Spanish couple, trudging wearily about their domestic chores.
Into this highly volatile time bomb of an environment enter the television presenter and the bank clerk, allowing Ayckbourn to use both his infinite comic imagination and his capacity for truly black humour to operate - quite superbly - side by side.
For while I was laughing hysterically, tears streaming down my face, Ayckbourn was still hammering home the twisted morality of these turbulent times. There were moments whew one should really not have laughed and yet it was impossible not to.
The centre of much of the comedy and of the ultimate tragedy was John Strickland's bank clerk. Instead of hating the robber, whom he had foiled, and who had then ridden to stardom, the clerk was overwhelmed by the rich Mediterranean environment and the robber's success.
This infuriated the television reporter, who wanted controversial and meaty copy, and needled the robber himself who couldn't come to terms with a man who could forgive and forget.
As the sun beat down, so the alcohol flowed and as each character, apart from the bank clerk, ruthlessly pursued their mutually exclusive goals, it became quite clear that this whirlpool of conflicting emotions was going to end in tragedy. And so it did.
One day Alan Ayckbourn will write a play which will astound the world. Man Of The Moment is not (quite) this play.
Yet it remains a towering artistic and technical achievement. Shrouded in darkness and pessimism, it still manages to be hugely entertaining and, especially at the end of act one, unbearably funny.
Man Of The Moment runs in repertory until October 29. Don't miss out on an extraordinary theatrical experience."
(Yorkshire Evening Press, 12 August 1988)
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