Suburban Strains: Synopsis by Alan Ayckbourn

Cast: 4 male / 3 female
Running time (approximate): 2 hours - not including the interval
Acting edition: Published by Samuel French

Suburban Strains is the story of Caroline, a schoolteacher at a girls' public school who, at the age of 32, remains single and dedicated to her work until she meets Kevin, an actor three or four years her junior, at a dinner party given by Caroline's old school friend Jilly, now a freelance film director specialising in mainly industrial films.

After a swift romance, Caroline and Kevin are married and settled in her flat. Kevin is an actor of the mainly unemployed variety. Caroline finds several reasons to be jealous of Kevin's attraction to other women, all of them innocent enough, and it becomes apparent quite quickly that their lifestyles are going to prove very different. Kevin, casual and amiable; Caroline possessively jealous of her little nest, her flat increasingly irritated by the working role and responsibility she has to accept within the relationship.

An added complication is the crush Caroline suddenly finds herself the object of, from Linda, a pupil she has been coaching at home in the evening. Later Kevin beds Linda in the flat while Caroline is out and this leads to the break-up of the marriage. Kevin goes and Caroline, alone, disintegrates.

It is at this point, the musical actually starts. All the preceding part of the story is told in flashback form, cutting to and fro with the present time flow which proceeds as follows. Caroline is eventually rescued from her depression by capable friend Jilly and domesticated husband Ivor, who insist she comes round to their house for dinner. This Caroline does, after a brief and abortive trip to visit her father.

At dinner, Caroline meets Matthew, a doctor and apparently everything Kevin wasn't. He and Caroline are immediately attracted and everything seems set fair for a happier, more fruitful relationship. Caroline, though, desperate not to make the same mistake with Matthew that she did with Kevin, over compensates desperately, bending over backwards not to appear over fussy and conventional. Matthew, however, is looking for just such a woman to run his home, neatly and efficiently. He immediately takes Caroline in hand. A visit from Matthew's ex wife sounds more warning bells when she informs Caroline that he is a monstrous man who wants everything 'just so'. And will never, never settle for less.

At last, Caroline gets rid of Matthew and is again alone. Deciding perhaps that, after all, this may be the way she was intended to live. Although, throughout the piece she has noted many dire warnings in the form of people who do live alone and she well appreciates the dangers. At last, Kevin returns and it is decided between them that since nothing is ever going to be perfect, they'd better settle for what they already have.

At the centre of everything, obviously, is Caroline around whom the whole piece revolves. Indeed, she rarely leaves the stage.

The piece is free flowing with quick changes of scene. The two men in her life are played by different actors but other characters are intentionally doubled. One actress, for instance, plays all the women Caroline hates or feels threatened by; another, all the women she dreads she might become.

The dramatic tension in the story is, I hope, provided by how the story is told. Caroline looks back on a summer (the flashback scenes are all set in a heat-wave) from her present vantage point of a freezing winter three years later. It is, to batter the metaphor to death, a woman in winter looking back at summer but nonetheless finally looking forward to another summer next year.

Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.