City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

Improbable Fiction by Alan Ayckbourn; Pitlochry Festival Theatre - Review

By Vivien Devlin - Posted on 21 June 2015

Show Details
Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Alan Ayckbourn (writer), Clare Prenton (director), Frances Collier(set and costumes), David Brown and Elaine Scott (stage managers), Cris Stuart-Wilson (choreographer), Jon Beales (music). Wayne Dowdeswell (lighting).
Ronnie Simon (Arnold), Claire-Marie Seddon (Isla), Kathryn Martin (Jess), Helen Logan (Grace), Emma Odell (Vivvi), Gavin Swift (Clem), Dougal Lee (Brevis).
Running time: 

Alan Ayckbourn is an absolute genius at creating deviously complex, farcical situation comedies. Just as Wilde and Coward accomplished in their witty drawing room dramas, he satirises today's British suburban, middle-class family life at leisure.

The play’s title is taken from Shakespeare ("If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as improbable fiction." - Twelfth Night, Act III, scene 4). Its literary theme observes the joint aspirations of the members of Pendon Writers’ Circle.

"Improbable Fiction" was inspired by Ayckbourn’s personal experience of giving a talk to an amateur writers’ group. During the discussion, it became obvious that the members had probably never written anything at all: the meetings were all about a sociable get-together rather than pursuing a literary career.

The setting is the lounge of Arnold’s family home where he lives with his elderly mother, now bed-ridden upstairs. By day he works in a shop and by night his hobby is translating instruction leaflets into plain English and is the enthusiastic chairman of Pendon Writers’ Circle.

In the week before Christmas he is hosting a PWC meeting with five budding writers who seem to be in desperate search of characters, plot and inspiration.

Around the room, perched on old chairs, stools and chaise longue, are Jess, a lesbian farmer who is researching her historical romance, and Vivvi is passionate about vintage crime novels akin to Sayers and Christie; Clem, a young nerdy guy has completed several chapters of his Sci fi tale, but it's littered with malapropisms; Grace has illustrated her (unwritten) children’s story, Doblin the Goblin, while Brevis is composing the score for a musical based on The Pilgrim’s Progress, which lacks the essential lyrics.

The Pendon Circle is a diverse, disparate bunch who have little patience for each other’s failings as writers. Acting as a referee, Arnold offers encouragement and smoothes over criticism with tact and humour. Portraying this quiet, good natured chap, Ronnie Simon is reminiscent of Hugh Bonneville, playing one of his genial, hapless characters.

Meanwhile, his colleague Ilsa is looking after Arnold’s mother upstairs, and has offered to serve coffee during the meeting. She is painfully shy and in complete silence she slowly, methodically, hands out cups, milk, sugar, plates and mince pies – much to the curiosity of the “writers,” who conclude she must be foreign.

Refreshments aside, we listen to snippets of stories and updates on creative progress. Very little occurs in Act 1 - but this is intentional; the gradual introduction reveals subtle facts about their backgrounds, love lives, work and worry of writers' block.

The meeting ends with a clash of thunder and lightening …and we are thrown headfirst into a convoluted time-travelling series of dramatised episodes as each of the writers’ imaginative fictional worlds collide head first.

The second act is a roller coaster scamper through all their literary genres. Scenes switch in minutes from a 1930s murder thriller, to a creepy Gothic romance, from a Sci-fi movie to a Beatrix Potter-style story about a fat furry squirrel.

This mish-mash of Improbable Fiction criss-crosses the centuries back and fro as the cast throw themselves into playing two or three roles from candlestick-carrying butlers and maids, tweed suited, “Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane” spoof detectives and Alien-chasing Superheroes.

It is only Arnold, in his slacks and woolly jumper who remains in situ at home, present day period and place, looking completely baffled , especially when his telephone periodically vanishes. (Watch the sideboard carefully!).

The cast is all superb with a trio of star turns in particular: the inimitable Dougal Lee (in his 14th PFT season), Emma Odell (with a touch of Miranda Hart comic timing), and Helen Logan - all of whom perfect brilliant stereotypical characterisations.

Behind the scenes, the Director, Stage Managers and set and costume designer all deserve credit for theatrical flair to envisage this multi-layered, fast paced, farcical plot with such literary imagination.

Show times:
Running in repertoire until 17th October, 2015