Suburban Strains: World Premiere Reviews

This page contains reviews of the world premiere production of Alan Ayckbourn's Suburban Strains at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, in January 1980. It is not a complete set of reviews as the aim of the page is to offer a flavour of how the play was originally received and to offer a cross-section of opinion. All reviews on this page are the copyright of the respective publication and / or author and should not be reproduced.

Suburban Strains (by Robin Thornber)
"Carefully described as 'a musical play,' the new Ayckbourn is not so much a musical of the sort with high-kicking chorus-girls as a play with music. His previous essay into hyped-up lyric theatre,
Jeeves, is apparently best forgotten. Since then Mr Ayckbourn has found for his tiny theatre-in-the-round at Scarborough a musical director, Paul Todd, he can work with. A year or so ago they produced a series of sketches and songs, Men On Women On Men, which was a classic of intimate revue. And now, this is the big one.
The master of suburban farce is back on home ground, pinning down the nice, normal, lower-middle people like you or me, whose well meant frictions crucify. Here he transfixes a teacher, trapped between parents, pupils, husband, lovers and friends.
Lavinia Bertram plays Caroline with a fraught, flicked-up hair-style and a high-pitched laugh, defying them all - her petty father (John Arthur), the actor she marries (Robin Bowerman), who spends his life in bed, the pernickety boy friend (Robin Herford), the interfering friends (Alison Skilbeck and Jeffrey Robert) - with the desperate assertion that 'I'm an individual.'
Songs like that swell naturally from the action, with the dinner-party cross-talk slipping into a rhythm of car mechanics and theatre gossip. The craftsmanship, as the stage revolves and one-line scenes blend and flow, has an intimately intricate delicacy - it will be an appalling challenge for any director other than Alan Ayckbourn.
Would the songs, subtly integrated as they are, have been missed? Gently, in an unassuming way, they underscore and enhance the action: but it is Caroline's cares that carry us through. The play's the thing, the music's an embellishment."
(The Guardian, 21 January 1980)

Suburban Strains (by Irving Wardle)
"To those who took against
Jeeves it may not come as welcome news that Alan Ayckbourn has written another musical play. But, music aside, there is no point of comparison between his commercial Wodehouse adaptation and this small scale original piece born and bred, like all Ayckbourn's best work, on his Yorkshire home ground.
Suburban Strains tells the story of Caroline, a trusting young English teacher who first turns her flat over to an open marriage with an unemployed actor, and recoils from that disaster into a deadly affair with a priggish doctor who specialises in unravelling women like pieces of knitting. Caroline finally throws him out, too, and achieves a happy ending with her first man. The piece explores territory as bleak as any Ayckbourn has touched, but this time he relents and allows his heroine fairy tale privileges.
Paul Todd's music, intrusive in too prolonged overtures, but wholly self-effacing as a support to the action, is not there for decorative purposes. Like other technical devices Ayckbourn has used, its purpose is functional: in this case, to present material that will be so familiar to the average middle-class spectator that it bursts out of the lives of this particular group of characters. A ghastly dinner party, for instance, becomes a sextet involving three simultaneous lines of conversation. Tense, erotic encounters with each partner waiting for the other to make the first move supply another pretext for song. Likewise, a number chronicling a marital break-up with Caroline and her man sorting out their gramophone records.
Ayckbourn has mounted his production on two concentric revolves (a device I have not seen before), which not only secure speedy changes of scene and present the same scene from different angles, but also enable him to shuffle past and present in the bewildered Caroline's mind: allowing her absent husband to walk through the set in the midst of a tender encounter with the new man; and showing her twice returning home from dinner parties to hold double conversations with the two men she brings back on the two different occasions.
The piece shows Ayckbourn as alert as ever to the absurdities of marital experiment; surrounding Caroline with domineering friends, all telling her what to do with her life, while they themselves are as lost as she is.
This also shows off the Scarborough company's flair for incisive social caricature and virtuoso doubling, particularly from John Arthur and from Alison Skilbeck who appears variously as an upper-crust Amazonian wielding absolute control over a house husband, and as a repressed school-bound spinster. It is one mark of the production's quality that the integrity of Lavinia Bertram's Caroline counts for more than all the tricks." *
(The Times, 21 January 1980)

* When originally published in The Times, the final paragraph was cut from Irving Wardle's review. The piece is restored here to its original form including the excised paragraph.

Suburban Strains (by Antony Thorncroft)
"Alan Ayckbourn's latest piece, presented first, as usual, at the Theatre in the Round in Scarborough where he is director, finds him on familiar territory, the angst of middle-class suburbia, but with a new compass.
Suburban Strains is a musical play; not a musical as in Ayckbourn's ill received cooperation with Andrew Lloyd Webber, Jeeves, but a more modest venture in which Ayckbourn characters, in typical Ayckbourn situations, mouth typical Ayckbourn solecisms against the periodic outbursts of Paul Todd's music. The songs come suddenly upon them, enabling the actors to see themselves, and their predicaments, more roundly.
'Round' is the apt word for this production. It is played 'in the round,' and the characters are more rounded, at least in their view of themselves, than in past Ayckbourn. The subtleties; the gestures that tell all; the instant recognition of type by give-away phrase or attitude, which are Ayckbourn's trademarks, are replaced here by the truths pouring out, sometimes in the most direct, soul searing dialogue that he has written, sometimes in the songs which in their insights leave the background comedy of manners looking a bit wooden.
And
Suburban Strains is rounded because the plot encompasses a circle, solving none of the problems of the main character, Caroline, but suggesting, at the end that she is better able to live with them. Caroline is a schoolteacher, the victim of her own niceness. Taking everyone on face value she is duped by her shiftless husband, Kevin, a permanently resting actor, and then by Matthew, the first man to pick her up after the marriage flounders, a nit-picking doctor who attempts to turn everyone into his own precise image. The plot is sad and real and beautifully observed with Ayckbourn scoring far too many good jokes off the pathetic Caroline.
Once again his unrivalled technique with mealtimes comes into play as the dinner party in which Caroline re-emerges into the world after the break up of her marriage merges with the earlier dinner party that followed her first fight with Kevin. The way which time and space weave in and out; nip and tuck on the circular revolving stage, show Ayckbourn's theatrical adroitness in top gear. In 'Table Talk' the song that bridges the acts and the dinner parties, he has the company indulging their preoccupations - gossip, seduction, car overhaul, cuisine and, in Caroline's case, personal trauma, in, appropriately, a round that jumps years and affairs.
Most of the seven strong cast play several parts which intensifies the feeling of marital claustrophobia, the theme, if any, of the play. Stretching over three hours there are plenty scenes to chop - Caroline's father's reverie of the old days leaps quickly to mind - and some of the secondary characters, broadly played could also be cut down to size. But Paul Todd's music, with occasional echoes of Julian Slade, is atmospheric and appealing, and Lavinia Bertram as Caroline is quite marvellous, sympathetic without being sickening. The most recent Ayckbourn plays to reach London showed some exhaustion, a flagging of interest in Haywards Heath Man;
Suburban Strains, does not have a Shaftesbury Avenue look at the moment but in its simplicity and charm is all the better for that."
(Financial Times, January 1980)

Suburban Strains (by Eric Shorter)
"What is to be done about Alan Ayckbourn? Shouldn't he be nationalised or something? Ought the most successful British playwright of our time to be allowed to go on running his provincial company in Yorkshire with such obvious success when the rest of the British theatre is clamouring for the kind of stuff which he turns out with such apparent ease?
The latest piece is called
Suburban Strains. In it Mr Ayckbourn again addresses himself to the middle classes. A young school mistress repents her marriage to a cheerful, if wayward young actor whom she supports. They separate. She takes up with a gentle yet nerve-racking doctor. She also dallies with a bovine sort of gourmet, and in the end she returns to her husband of the roving eye and untidy manners.
Will she be happy? No one knows, least of all she.
This is a comedy of truth and wit as well as novelty, directed by the author at the Stephen Joseph Theatre-In-The-Round at Scarborough on a stage which sometimes rotates in two directions at once and with music by Paul Todd.
Much of the dialogue is sung. It isn't always clear why. And the singers wear discreet neck microphones so that the lyrics are heard to advance the plot or at any rate the characterisation. It is tuneful, rhythmical music. It prevents the heroine's plight from becoming serious.
Nevertheless we are affected by Her, because the actress (Lavinia Bertram) never shows self pity. Her acting is full of charm.
But then it was ever part of Mr Ayckbourn's art to make attractive the imperfections and anxieties of people who mean well but succumb to their own natures.
If his heroine has fewer faults than her men-folk, she is at least never sentimentalised.
Every character is given a touch of humanity in this comedy of marital insecurity. In addition to Miss Bertram, the author can be grateful to Robin Bowerman, Alison Skilbeck, John Arthur and Nina Edwards for catching the tones of life at school, dinner party and hearthside where he also experiments with chronology in terms of flashback.
This looks like another triumph, though whether it will seem to be so good when newly cast, newly staged, and newly sung (as presumably it will be next season) must be doubted."
(Yorkshire Post, 15 January 1980)

Distant Laughter (by Robert Cushman)
"Three of our four funniest playwrights had new plays on view in a week less riotously amusing than might have been expected.
Alan Ayckbourn won. His Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in Scarborough is one of the most important houses in the country, and his
Suburban Strains is his most accomplished piece of staging to date. Two concentric revolves have been installed, the actors generally standing in the inner circle while necessary furnishings travel to them on the outer.
Suburban Strains is a musical, though one of which the songs are the least important part; Mr Ayckbourn's lyrics are well placed and technically sound, but they lack spring, while Paul Todd's music is rather tinkly. But the form itself has released something in the playwright. It takes any clinical curse off his accustomed games with time and space. And though his subject-matter remains much the same as before - loneliness and casual cruelty - the approach has opened up. He has tended before to show us relationships so far gone in decay that the participants are too tired to shift or too blind to notice. Here we see the rot starting, the characters struggling. There are even love-scenes.
The central figure is Caroline, a schoolteacher who flees from marriage with an actor, who messes up both her flat and her life, to an affair with a doctor who tries tyrannically to tidy them up. The treatment is generally chronological, but with leaps; moments from the first relationship are frequently recalled, to be juxtaposed with the second. On the outskirts are grimly cheerful dinner-parties and pep-talks from Caroline's appallingly optimistic newsagent dad, backed - in the happiest musical stroke of the evening - by a trio of OAP customers (including one who regularly thumbs through the girlie mags before settling for the Radio Times).
The story is too drawn out (and it was surely a mistake to have the doctor's estranged wife warn Caroline what he would do to her, rather than letting her and us discover for ourselves), but both the dialogue and the observation are unflagging. Lavinia Bertram is sweet and spirited as Caroline, and Alison Skilbeck - a regular Scarborough ornament - delivers, punctually, a varied quartet of Mr Ayckbourn's saddest
sacks."
(The Observer, January 1980)

Good-Time (by Paul Allen)
"If there is another theatre where you can turn up to a first night and find the publicity officer working one of the two revolving sections of the stage, I haven't been to it. That's the difference between the Ayckbourn experience on home territory and in the more clinical luxury of our grander theatres; in Scarborough the excitement of a night out at the theatre is amplified by a sense that the whole thing is only just managing to happen at all, thanks to desperately hard work and the odd slice of good luck, like having Britain's most successful playwrights as your director.
It's good-time theatre, though not without its poignant moments.
Suburban Strains is not particularly about the suburbs, but about a marriage and specifically about the view from the woman's side of the gulf. Unlike most plays in that sour modern genre it gives you an inkling of how the protagonists might once have fancied, liked and loved one another. Consequently, despite an artificially sweetened ending, its ironic pessimism is more persuasive than the ranting of most attacks on the institutionalised relationship.
Good-time theatre, even when subject to tragic thrusts, thrives on characters you are glad to see come on stage, either for the first time or for a return visit, and not only because of the anticipated laughter or the knowledge that the carefully composed plot is about to develop. Likeable people lead to likeable plays and Ayckbourn seeks them out as both writer and director (even the appalling Norman in
The Norman Conquests is all right on stage).
I was led to this two-pence-worth of contribution to the great What-Makes-Ayckbourn-Tick? debate by the one character in
Suburban Strains who is not at all likeable - when the heroine ladles soup down her backless dress, you want to cheer - and who, significantly, doesn't work. She is our old friend, the glamorous bitch, and she doesn't fail because she is familiar, because others equally well-thumbed do work, but because the author wasn't sufficiently attracted to her to give her the humanity to make her work.
Perhaps he is spreading himself a bit thin these days. The heroine's father has an opening line ('I blame the unions') that is a statement about the character, not the more specific, more pointed, more Ayckbourn-ish thing such a character would say. As it happens that good actor John Arthur is soon able to rescue the man, mouthing his banalities ('A day wasted is one in which you haven't laughed'), forgetting his own daughter's name and lecturing her on her behaviour while turning a blind eye to the flag pole of his own ruined marriage. The reactionary tobacconist may be impossible to live with but his customers love him and that is enough for the actor and the audience, and much the same goes for Alison Skilbeck's wonderfully funny embittered older teacher, 'recognising evil when I see it' in teenage girls and interfering in the more interesting lives of junior staff.
Paul Todd's 15 or so songs make a lightweight evening into a rather long one and tend to embellish it rather than move it on, except on one or two occasions, such as the sharply recognisable agony of 'What Does She Expect of Me?' Musically they seem a bit cool for the broad sweep of Ayckbourn's direction and the demands of theatre-in-the-round's acting styles. But listened to in isolation the band is easy on the ear.
The play has more than one time scale, sometimes showing us what goes on in the heroine's head at the same time as the conversation she is supposed to be having. It sounds more complex than it is, and - like everything else - is easily contained in Lavinia Bertram's lovely performance as Caroline, the heroine, a teacher with that tell-tale trace of school-girl about her, veering between hope and mortification and still trusting the world's goodness in spite of the bastards she meets: you long to make things go right for her and you know they never will.
Suburban Strains is far from Ayckbourn at his most stylish or perceptive, but the quality of the night out makes the competition look very thin."
(New Statesman, January 1980)

Suburban Strains (by David Jeffels)
"It's third time lucky** for top comedy playwright Alan Ayckbourn in his bid to pen a musical show.
For his latest work
Suburban Strains, which had its world premiere at Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre-in-the-Round, was a sensation.
Haunted by the memory of
Jeeves, which failed after only a few weeks on the West End stage, Ayckbourn was determined to write a successful musical.
His joint effort with the theatre's highly talented musical director Paul Todd, is in typical Ayckbourn style, with broken marriages and strained relationships being the main theme.
It is the story of a woman teacher facing many of the dilemmas which confront the modern woman in relation to the men in her life - whether she is too submissive or dominant - having seen others around her make the wrong choice.
The 15 numbers are cleverly written and composed, and have delightfully catchy tunes, particularly 'I'm an Individual', 'On Our Own', and 'Two Can Play'.
Especially brilliant are the table talk songs with six people each carrying on cross conversations.
The high standard of the play is matched by excellent acting with: Alison Skilbeck and Lavinia Bertram outstanding. Robin Herford, Jeffery Robert, John Arthur and Nina Edwards, complete the cast of the first rate production, directed by Ayckbourn and designed by John Halle."
(The Stage, January 1980)

** It's not entirely clear here what the three musical shows are as this was only Alan Ayckbourn's second full-length musical; presumably the author is referring to the full-length musical
Jeeves (1975), Alan's revue Men One Women On Men (1978) and, finally, Suburban Strains.

Suburban Strains (by Desmond Pratt)
"This first venture into musical drama by Mr. Ayckbourn falls just short of being a masterpiece - perhaps an inch or so. Not an unbridgeable gap and one that has every possibility of being spanned as the production settles down.
It is loosely based on the age-old story of boy meets girl, boy marries girl, deserts her, girl falls in love again or thinks she does and - well, I leave you to find out. The unashamed sentimental ending.
Caroline, a young school teacher, meets Kevin, a young actor, mainly occupied in three-second TV commercials. They marry, but he is promiscuous and they part. She meets Matthew, a doctor, in the process of divorcing his wife, and is attracted to him.
The invention of the play is fiendishly ingenious. The two love affairs and the incidents and people accompanying them take place simultaneously, so that the time lag is abolished from the stage and the past moves across the chessboard of life with the present. Conversations taking place at different periods of time cross each other like lattice work.
Mr. Ayckbourn, always a theatrical technical wizard, set himself in this work his most formidable problem to date, and solved it superbly and with great clarity.
It is played on two circular revolving stages splendidly designed by John Halle to accommodate all occasions, and there are many of only a few minutes duration.
But at a running time of three and a half hours it is at least 20 minutes too long. The conversation is easy, natural and simple, but some of the jokes are well-worn and could easily be discarded. Sometimes Paul Todd's accompanying music is discordant with the atmosphere but these too are blemishes that can and will, I am sure, be reconsidered.
Elsewhere, his music follows a melodic, often beautiful line through 15 assorted solos, duets, quartet and even quintets and sextet: so filigree is the web of the happenings.
'Let's Spread It About', 'Table Talk', 'Goodbye' and 'Risking It All For Love' are all memorable, and it is a play in which sometimes the emotions backed sympathetically by the music clutch the throat.
Lavinia Bertram's Caroline eager-eyed and breathless throughout, showers like some lovely blossom caught by the morning sun when she meets love. It is a performance neatly matched by Robin Bowerman's Kevin, a gauche likeable young philanderer.
The rest of the cast of five, play 13 different people who brush against the newly-weds from their first meeting through their various troubles.
The redoubtable Alison Skilbeck, I am quite sure could produce a Ruth Draper gallery all of her own. Others I particularly liked were Robin Herford's dry, complaining Matthew, Jeffrey Robert's comic agitation as the helpful friend, John Arthur's fastidious gourmet and Nina Edwards blank-minded temptress.
Mr. Ayckbourn's own production moves quickly, but should avoid the Busby Berkeley finale. It reminded me of something from the Broadway Melodies.
The orchestra, perched high above the acting, is led by Mr. Todd and consists of Chris Achenbach (keyboards), lain Hawkins (guitar/banjo), Pete Mentzell (string/electric bass), Ron Wray (drums/percussion) and Mr. Todd on percussion and keyboards."
(Yorkshire Post, 21 January 1980)

Suburban Strains A Perfect Smasher (by Iain Meekley)
"If I was asked to give a description of
Suburban Strains in under a dozen words, I think it would be Men on Women on Men on Men on Women on Men.
Alan Ayckbourn and Paul Todd's musical play, world premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre last night, is essentially the dramatic duo's crisp and clever mini-musical, staged at the theatre in the summer of 1978, squared.
Like
Men On Women On Men, the show is a wry, sly look at the tangled weave of relationships between men and women - but while the first Ayckbourn-Todd collaboration touched on the theme, Suburban Strains stretches it to the full.
I think the reason for the failure of Ayckbourn's first attempt at a musical, the disastrous
Jeeves, was simply that the playwright was trying to work with someone else's material.
With
Suburban Strains, he is entirely in control, master of every bizarre ceremony - and, if there is any justice left in the theatre world, he and Mr Todd have got a hit on their hands.
I am rapidly running out of superlatives to describe Ayckbourn's work, and the way in which it is presented by the Stephen Joseph company, and half hope that one day he and they will come up with a real 9 carat smeller, just for the sake of critical variety.
But I have to say that
Suburban Strains is a perfect smasher, and deserves to be a smash.
The story follows the changing emotional fortunes of young teacher Caroline (Lavinia Bertram), who, as the play opens, has just become separated from her sloppy actor husband.
In a series of flashbacks - and flash-sideways as well - she critically examines her relationships with other people and the different directions their lives have taken, and questions her own role in the scheme of things.
Among the strains Caroline has to contend with are a lover with an improvement-fetish, an aphorism-spinning dad, an Australian dinner-party boor, and a crush-fixated schoolgirl who takes terrible and appropriate revenge for being rejected.
We are into familiar Ayckbourn territory all right - but it is the way in which it is covered that leaves you breathless.
Suburban Strains makes the multi-levelled complexities of previous Ayckbourn plays look like a game of draughts.
A cast of seven play a total of 15 roles in a production which has more scene changes than in any previous work by Ayckbourn.
The problems of interlocking the series of rapid flashback sequences is solved with the help of the theatre's new double revolving stage. The appropriate bits of furniture - and often, the actors - are simply revolved into place.
It works brilliantly, but there is a spin-off question - how could the production be adapted for touring?
It immediately becomes obvious why
Suburban Strains is billed as a musical play, not a musical.
The show carries 15 numbers, but they are integrated into the action of the play, not presented as separate routines, with the effect that there is no sense of dislocation when characters stop speaking and start singing.
The songs themselves, gleaming with Ayckbourn's sharp-edged lyrics - (I've had loaded hints / Cut moquette and faded chintz / Up to here, sings Robin Bowerman, as Kevin, in the bitter 'Two Can Play') - are beautifully crafted.
Outstanding were 'Dorothy and Me', sung by John Arthur, with 'pensioner' chorus in one hilarious sequence, the two-part dinner-table cross-gossip song 'Table Talk', and the haunting 'Goodbye', which deserves to be put on vinyl.
Lavinia Bertram, who has an eloquent singing voice, carried the major role of the evening as Caroline, who is required to be on stage for almost every moment, and Alison Skilbeck briskly tackled four separate parts, from brittle hostess Jilly to one of the OAP chorus.
Mina Edwards provided a nice study in contrasts as both stricken schoolgirl Linda, and the sharp-clawed Joanna, and Jeffrey Robert doubled as Ivor the culinary engineer and one of the pensioner trio.
Robin Herford gave an immaculately clean-lined performance as the perfection obsessed Matthew.
Paul Todd's music was given sensitive treatment by the five-piece band, Chris Achenbach, lain Hawkins, Pete Mentzell, Ron Wray, and Mr Todd on vibes.
Directed, of course, by Alan Ayckbourn,
Suburban Strains is at the theatre for only a 20-week [sic - should be 2 week] run."
(Scarborough Evening News, 19 January 1980)

All reviews are copyright of the respective publication.