Review: My Wonderful Day by Alan Ayckbourn. Produced by Seattle Public Theater. Directed by Marcus Goodwin. With N’Tasha Anders, Allison Strickland, Candace Vance, Shawn Law, Emily Grogan and Evan Whitfield. Now through February 20 at The Bathhouse Theater at Green Lake.
Sir Alan Ayckbourne, at age 71, is the Grand Old Man of British Theater and the most prolific. Sir Alan suffered a mild stroke in 2006 and many assumed he would retire from the theater. Since then, he has completed four new plays, including My Wonderful Day, now playing at Seattle Public Theater’s Bathhouse Theater at Green Lake. The play, which debuted in 2009, is his 73rd play. (He’s written another since then.) How many playwrights can claim they have written more full length plays than years they’ve lived on earth? Or, more importantly, how many playwrights can claim to have written so many good and important plays…works like Absurd Person Singular (1975), The Norman Conquests trilogy (1973), Bedroom Farce (1975), A Chorus of Disapproval (1984), A Small Family Business (1987), The Revengers’ Comedies (1989), House & Garden (1999), Private Fears in Public Places (2004)…it’s a ridiculously long list of major works, most of which can be called imaginatively structured dark comedies that tend to examine the psyche of rather ordinary middle class suburban Brits and the complicated lives they might lead.
My Wonderful Day breaks the pattern of many of Ayckbourne’s play by featuring characters outside the normal Ayckbournian universe. The “wonderful” day in question belongs to 9 year old Winnie, an Anglo-Caribbean child who’s off from school for the day, and spending it with her house cleaner mother Laverne in the home of a well-off television personality while her mother does her job. Winnie has a school assignment to write an essay on a “wonderful day” and her mother insists she complete the assignment and stay out of the way while she works. Laverne, who is also heavily pregnant with her second child, also instructs Winnie to practice her French, by only speaking the language all day as a learning exercise. Her life in somewhat of a shambles, (the father of the children has run off), Laverne yearns to return to the Caribbean and escape the drudgery of her working class life. But, this wonderful, French speaking day, quickly devolves into anarchy and confusion as the arrogant home owner/television personality conducts some rather unsavory business in front of Winnie, involving his business assistant/mistress, a rather clueless underling, and his enraged wife. The presence of Winnie and her insistence on only speaking French further clouds the situation, and the not very surprising arrival of Winnie’s new little brother only exacerbates the issue and by the end of the day, and the play, Winnie has a very colorful essay to present to her teacher.
This play breaks new ground for Ayckbourne in a number of ways, primarily in the characters featured in the play. Children rarely exist in the playwright’s “adult” plays and people of color have rarely been featured. Ayckbourne has been the artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, a small provincial city in the north of England, for the last 35 years and his plays tend to focus on the people he lives with: suburban, white, middle class Brits. My Wonderful Day features two non-white, working class characters interacting in an upper middle class household. It’s an interesting and exciting departure for the playwright, reflecting that he’s adaptable to the changing social structure of British society.
It also makes for a charming and funny play. Unlike many works by Ayckbourne, who frequently plays with the structure of his works by different methods of story telling, (using reverse chronology; simultaneous plots; the use of alternate plots and endings), “Day” is played in normal chronology, beginning at the start of the workday around 9am and wrapping it all up by 5 or so. The most novel “device” used is having Winnie present on stage for the entire length of the play; it is told through her eyes, and ears as she listens to some very grown up conversations, all the while recording everything she sees and hears. Frequently ignored or patronized, not only for her age, her sex, her race and her position on the socio-economic ladder, Winnie remains the center of the audience’s attention as the characters, and the mainstream society of Britain try to ignore her, and what she represents to the future of Britain. It’s an interesting premise, and Sir Alan never beats us over the head with it, instead focusing on the humor and pathos of the situations. My Wonderful Day isn’t pantheon level Ayckbourne, but it does make for an interesting, entertaining and thoughtfully comedic night of theater with some very funny dialogue and sharp observations about class and racial divides in the twilight years of the Age of Elizabeth the Second.
It is also very well directed, by Marcus Goodwin, who maintains the frantic pace required of Ayckbournian comedy while allowing it to breathe in the quieter moments. He’s aided by an excellent cast that features several familiar Seattle actors including Shawn Law, (who’s been a very busy bee in the last year, with roles in Hamlet, reasons to be pretty, and The Laramie Project) as the assholish home owner/television personality Kevin. Mr Law not only revels in the role as the ultimate selfish, self-centered show biz bastard, he nails the British accent AND looks smashing running around the stage for the first 10 minutes of the show in his underpants and a skimpy robe. If they gave Footlight Awards for filling out a pair of briefs, he would have won a basket full this year…More fully attired, but also quite good as the only other male character in the play, was Evan Whitfield as the rather dim co-worker, Josh who spends some rather sweet quality time with Winnie. I did not care for Mr Whitfield’s performance in Seattle Shakes’ Henry V last year as the titular king; it was a bland and oddly conceived performance and at the time I wondered if it was the actor, or the director of that play at fault. After seeing Mr Whitfield’s work in this play, I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt. His performance in “Day” is charming, poignant and delightful.
As for the two ladies in Kevin’s life, both Emily Grogan as the sweet and rather naive mistress and Candace Vance as the icy and vengeful wife Paula give assured, confident comedic performances, as well as excelling with their accents. They sounded very good to my BBC trained ears, which was confirmed by two former UK residents who saw the play with me. Big kudos to the dialect coach for this production, Kate Forster, and the talents of the actors.
Also displaying fine accents, were the final two members of the company, Allison Strickland as the pregnant mum Laverne and N’Tasha Anders as Winnie, and both actresses give winning performances as the mother/daughter duo, with Ms Strickland striking the right notes of maternal love and authority while trying to fight against the wistful resignation that not all her dreams for her future, might not come true. She was well matched by her stage daughter, N’Tasha Anders, who holds our attention for the entire length of the play not only with her physical presence on the stage, but with the charisma of her performance. Winnie is silently listening for much of the play, and Ms Anders always kept her focus. But, I do have one small criticism/note for the actress and the director…at times, there was a tendency for the actress to “mug” or make faces while listening and reacting to the adult characters. I realize that children DO have a tendency to do so, but I thought it was a bit overdone at times. Many nine year olds will, in fact, do the opposite and play poker face when dealing with adults. (And, before you gasp in horror at my criticism of a child actress, you need to be aware that Ms Anders is a 20 year old senor at Cornish, albeit a very petite 20 year old, very successfully portraying a nine year old child.)
Also: kudos to the designers: Andrea Bryn Bush for her clean, chic, multi-functional set; and especially Jay Weinland for some very well balanced sound design that is integral to the plot, and success of the play.
Who’s it for? Lover’s of clever, smart comedies; Anglophiles and Ayckbourne acolytes.
Note: Dress warmly; the Bathhouse Theater at Green Lake is a bit drafty in winter time!
Tags: My Wonderful Day