Man of The Moment: Michael Billington's West End review

Man Of The Moment opened in the West End in 1990. This page presents extracts from some of the major reviews of the London premiere of the play.
The page begins though with the noted critic and award-winning theatre historian Michael Billington, who has always offered a perceptive look into the plays of Alan Ayckbourn. In the October 1990 edition of Country Life, his review of the London production Man Of The Moment offers an excellent example of his insight into Alan Ayckbourn's plays and an assessment of one of the most significant Ayckbourn plays.

Accepting Human Happiness (by Michael Billington)
How, I was recently asked, do Alan Ayckbourn's plays differ between Scarborough and London? There is, in fact, both loss and gain. At Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, where they receive their premieres, there is a homely, intimate feeling and a genuine sense of communality. In London the plays have the benefit both of star-casting and of more elaborate settings, which enhance their visual detail. But there is no golden rule. Some of Ayckbourn's plays work better in the North, others in the South.
Man of the Moment, which has just opened at the Globe, has gained from its London transfer. It was excellently acted in Scarborough by a first-rate cast, but in Michael Gambon it has now acquired an actor touched with greatness. The setting by Roger Glossop also seems a more vital part of the action. It consists of the patio-pool area of a Spanish-Mediterranean villa and provides a slightly precipitous stone-stepped entrance and a surrounding sun-baked wall of which Ayckbourn, the director, makes good comic use. However, from the stalls, the audience are less aware of the swimming pool than they were in Scarborough, where they gazed down on the action.
What matters is the play itself, which shows Ayckbourn's gift for dealing with moral issues in an exuberantly comic manner: it is just beginning to dawn on us that we have a classic writer living in our midst. Here he is writing both about the triumph of good over evil and about television's built-in capacity to distort reality. He weaves the two together through an ambitious young TV presenter's plan to stage a confrontation between two men whose paths crossed 17 years ago. It is the story of a bank clerk who tackled a shotgun-wielding bank robber in order to rescue his female hostage. Douglas Beechey, the former cashier, is now a forgotten hero living in Purley: Vic Parks, the ex-thug, is now a popular TV chat-show host and bestselling author with a Spanish villa.
Like all first-rate plays,
Man of the Moment has a metaphorical resonance. It reminds us of the way we have turned the Great Train Robbers into folk heroes while completely forgetting the train-driver who was their victim: it also pinpoints the sentimentality of a society that loves nothing more than a reformed gangster. But one of Ayckbourn's points is that we are trapped inside our own characters and that we change less radically than we assume. In the course of the action we see Douglas, the stumbling, bumbling innocent, displaying the quixotic gallantry of 17 years ago and Vic proving that, for all his wealth, fame and gold wrist-watches, he is still a figure of unquenchable evil.
As well as endorsing old-fashioned virtue and the romantic spirit, Ayckbourn is also concerned with satirising television and its tendency to manipulate life. Jill Rillington, the tough careerist producer-presenter, is determined to make a programme contrasting the misery of Douglas's life in a Purley semi with Vic's opulent success. What she discovers, to her horror, is that Douglas is entirely without envy and enjoys a blissfully happy and totally sexless life with the permanently scarred hostage of 17 years ago. This strikes a very effective double-blow. Ayckbourn suggests that television, which thrives on conflict, cannot cope with domestic contentment. He also argues that the media encourage us to sanctify materialism and to treat the villa, the pool, the boat and the stereo as the ultimate symbols of human happiness.
I must not make it sound as if Ayckbourn is writing a thesis. He is constructing a play; and part of the pleasure of
Man of the Moment lies in watching a consummate craftsman at work. Not since Ibsen has any dramatist relied so heavily on unravelling the past to show how it shapes and influences the present. But Ayckbourn also exploits the purely visual aspect of comedy to stunning effect. The climax to the first act is one of the funniest things I have ever seen on a stage with Jill busily contriving a mock reunion between the stiff-gaited Douglas and effusive Vic for the benefit of the cameras while the Spanish gardener is apparently drowning in the pool. Ayckbourn here hits several targets dead-centre: the artificiality of television, its indifference to real suffering and the sheer difficulty of behaving normally in front of a probing camera-lens.
Michael Gambon also brings to Douglas an extraordinary physical presence and superb comic inventiveness. The moment he steps out on stage you get a sense of the man's whole history: the biros firmly clipped to the front-pocket of his sports-jacket, the heavy Fair Isle pullover, and the black shoes worn with flannel trousers all instantly tell you that the man is a book-keeper, unused to travel and indifferent to fashion. There is something about the way Gambon beams with silent contentment as the TV pros natter on, that also tells you this is a totally good man at peace with himself and the world. This is vital because it makes his second-act transition to crusading white knight utterly convincing.
Ayckbourn's play is partly about the deceptiveness of appearances; and Peter Bowles as Vic is equally successful at displaying a raffish, sauntering, medal-honed charm underneath which lurks genuine spiritual evil. Samantha Bond as Jill also has that bright, hard, slightly mechanical quality you often find in dedicated TV careerists for whom life is simply raw programme material. And Diana Bull as Vic's maltreated second wife conveys beautifully the misery that accompanies material comfort.
What is salutary about Ayckbourn's play is that it demolishes the myth that goodness is inherently undramatic and exhilaratingly shows that virtue can bring its own theatrical reward.
(Country Life, 22 February 1990)

London Premiere: Review Extracts

Daily Mail (by Jack Tinker)
"Alan Ayckbourn is without doubt the living miracle of our modern theatre. The plays continue to pour forth with awesome regularity. Yet each new one has its own capacity to surprise, to delight and to give serious pause for thought on the human state…. A splendid evening, superbly acted and directed with a master touch by the master himself."

Daily Telegraph (by Charles Spencer)
Man Of The Moment represents our finest serious-comic dramatist at somewhere near his very best. Though he has now written as many plays as Shakespeare, Ayckbourn's range is not quite as wide nor his language as memorable. But his insights may be as deep. In his ability to convert the tears and laughter of every day life, he is more like Chekhov."

Evening Standard (by Milton Shulman)
"A sparkling comedy that has tried to be too moralistic for its own good."

The Guardian (by Michael Billington)
"Alan Ayckbourn's
Man Of The Moment strikes me as one of the best things he has ever done. It works simultaneously as a sharp-toothed satire on society's sanctification of the criminal and on television's manipulation of reality, while being structured with the diabolical intricacy of Ibsen's Rosmerholm. It is, in fact, a bit of a masterpiece."

The Independent (by Paul Taylor)
"Managing to be both ridiculous and heart-rending, [Michael] Gambon ensures that you never condescend to Douglas, and also gives glimpses of the pain that has been transfigured by sheer good nature…. The least successful aspect of either the play or the author's own production is the satire of media manipulation. Though it provides some deliriously comic scenes."

Independent On Sunday (by Irving Wardle)
"With a total of 25 plays in as many years, Alan Ayckbourn remains the supreme conjurer of the comic stage. No one has come anywhere near rivalling the ingenuity, inventiveness and surpass tactics of his act."

The Listener
"Alan Ayckbourn's latest is less dense than the week's other offerings, but equally impassioned and plotted with characteristic audacity."

Mail On Sunday (by Kenneth Hurren)
"He [Ayckbourn] has never more chillingly integrated the hilarious, the sardonic and the cruel…. Enjoy - and if you feel guilty about laughing, Ayckbourn will be well pleased."

New Statesman (by Jim Hawkins)
"Despair, loss and cruelty are carefully hidden in the comedy. As always, we laugh, but now we might just cry…. His [Ayckbourn's] heroes and heroines are the bank clerks of Scarborough and Purley. His monsters can be met in any pub any night. If you want on-the-nose analysis of the state of the nation, you don't immediately look to Ayckbourn. But - 'This is the real world', Jill Rillington says at the start of the play. She's right."

Plays & Players (by Gwyn Morgan)
"Ayckbourn takes this dangerous and depressing material and turns it into an evening which is so funny that, on the first night, the laughter occasionally broke into applause. This writer is special because he creates events which are appalling and hilarious at the same time. Other authors - Osborne, even David Hare - use a joke to soften the audience before following up with a serious point. Ayckbourn makes you squirm while you're laughing."

The Stage (by Peter Hepple)
"Beneath the surface comedy, which gradually becomes darker in the author's now accepted fashion, he [Ayckbourn] has successfully solved one of the greatest puzzles of all, how to put across the concept of old-fashioned morality as we near the end of the 20th century."

Sunday Correspondent (by Hugo Williams)
"This is vintage savagery by the author of
Absent Friends…. It's great stuff and its images stay with you."

Sunday Telegraph (by John Gross)
"There are a few good jokes and some shrewd observation, especially about television. But Ayckbourn being Ayckbourn, we were also entitled to hope for something better."

Sunday Times (by John Peter)
Man Of The Moment is a black farce, like a requiem scored for screams and laughter…. [Douglas] Beechey is one of Ayckbourn's subtlest creations: a devastatingly boring man who is so socially ham-fisted and morally unbearably noble."

The Times (by Benedict Nightingale)
"I'm not saying he [Ayckbourn] has succeeded in giving us 'a completely serious play that makes people laugh without stopping'; but he comes as close to his long-stated aim as one could expect considering his material…. I found myself more consistently amused than by
Way Upstream or Just Between Ourselves, hitherto his blackest comedies."

What's On (by Lydia Conway)
"As with most late Ayckbourn nothing is quite what it seems and nobody quite so clear cut as we first thought and as such it's one of the most marvellous, moving and memorable evenings at the theatre I've had a for a long time. Very highly recommended.

All reviews are copyright of the respective publication.