Improbable Fiction – Tower Theatre

Improbable Fiction - Tower Theatre (by Robert Piwko)

While Hollywood loves nothing better than turning the camera on itself, so too do writers enjoy exploring the creative process from the germination of an idea to the paralysis of writer’s block. Beyond the more straightforward page to stage adaptation, another strand of plays exist exploring the lives and work of writers themselves. Often discursive pieces, they seek to examine the impact of a particular luminary or celebrate the border between the facts of their life and the elaborate fictions they create. Joanna Murray-Smith’s Switzerland about Patricia Highsmith which enjoyed a London run in 2018 for example put the famous crime novelist into a scenario dictated by her own stories as a stranger invades her remote mountain home, while Steven Carl McCasland’s Little Wars exhibited huge potential when it premiered online as a gathering of great female writers led by Dorothy Parker to discuss the coming storm in Europe in the early months of the Second World War.

Now, the Tower Theatre revives Alan Ayckbourn’s playful two hour piece Improbable Fiction about a writer’s group with varying degrees of experience and dedication who are asked to consider creating a joint endeavour that combines their vastly different genres. This charming parody of amateur writers gives Ayckbourn himself the opportunity to try on very different writing styles and in the Second Act to create a single story that attempts to put them altogether with Ayckbourn’s own trademark farce.

And while this may not be his most accomplished work, it nonetheless contains many of the characteristics with which he is most associated while perhaps notably casting some judgement on the cheap sentiment and generic plotting of different kinds of fiction. Playing into these cliches is part of the fun for Ayckbourn who combines Victorian melodrama, the 1930s detective novel and Science Fiction with a dash of children’s stories and even more pedestrian, functional writing that requires little imaginative input. The challenge in Improbable Fiction is wondering the extent to which Ayckbourn sees all of this as forgettable fluff.

But first Act One, more recognisable territory for Ayckbourn who gathers a disparate group of connected people together for a single event. This scenario is classic Ayckbourn, a chance for very different personalities and ages to interact often, for them, in a single unsatisfactory environment where they bring out the worst in one another. All of this first section of the play is dedicated to the Writer’s Group meeting, clearly a regular endeavour that attracts a variety of local people at different stages of the creative process including a female farmer struggling to start her Victorian romance, an introverted young man penning an elaborate futuristic fiction, a prolific woman writer on her sixth, as yet unpublished, crime novel with a serial detective, an artist creating a long-gestating children’s book, and, for variety, a disgruntled school teacher attempting to write a musical based on The Pilgrim’s Progress, all of whom discuss the particular challenges of their work in the conventional meeting set-up in which bland Chair and host Arnold invites each member of the writers club to speak.

Into this very ordinary setting, Ayckbourn then explores the personalities and circumstances of the individuals that informs or blocks their writing, while tapping into some of the undercurrents and resentments that shape their interaction. In a new revival at the Tower Theatre directed by Phillip Ley, this is one of the production’s strongest elements, giving life and shape to a lightly drawn group. Given the two-tone structure of Improbable Fiction, Ayckbourn is unable to explore in more detail or probe these relationships more deeply in order to take this particular set of interactions to their farcical endpoint. In fact there is an emphasis on the very ordinariness of this grouping in which nothing decisive is going to happen. No one will get their comeuppance nor will any of the long-held bitterness be resolved or at least allowed to erupt as the logical conclusion to most Ayckbourn productions.

In fact, as Director Ley makes clear, this meeting is routine, the same as the previous one and, with few changes, the same as the one to come. These characters are trapped in a cycle of semi-dull interaction and that is why they seek an imaginative outlet in creative fiction. While they may snipe and denigrate, they will never move beyond this relative stasis in their real lives, something Ayckbourn realises, eschewing the kind of plot contrivances that could be necessary to form a clash, and instead delving into their fictional lives for the second part of the this drama. But it means Act One is filled with clues about the things to expect in the following scenes, the writing styles and plot points that explain some of the behaviours and character quirks when Ayckbourn blends the novelists’ updates into a singular story. From Vivvi’s weepy assistant detective to Clem’s triple sidekicks for space age fixer Rex, Ayckbourn doesn’t only mix these worlds together but, in a sense, honours the creativity of his own characters by drawing on their source material for the anarchic fiction of Act Two.

Ley’s production probes these characters really nicely, both creating distinction as they arrive one by one and in conversation. Although Ayckbourn gives them a minimal characterisation, Stephanie Irvine finds a nice layer of prissy poise as Grace whose questionable personal life with her husband implies a mousy browbeaten woman which is the impression Irvine gives – aided by Jean Carr, Emma Efkeman, Isabel Putt’s costume design – but as Act One unfolds, there is an inner certainty in Grace that emerges, an outspokenness about an unpleasant male writer who collectively irritated the group at a previous gathering, and a clear dislike of Brevis, her disparaging former teacher who criticises everyone. That Richard Hague’s Brevis is entirely unaware of how others see him is equally entertaining, a man with a chip on his shoulder and entirely wrapped up in the multiplicitous failings of those around him. There is real verve in Hague’s performance as he complains about yet another generation of hopeless children playing pranks which equates with his frustration with Clem’s malapropism-ridden writing that drives Brevis to explode with disgust on more than one occasion.

The others are given far less rounded material to grapple with, however, making Tony Sears Clem hardly more than a geeky cliche who contributes little beyond his own reading, Sophia Chrisafis’s fast-writing novelists has lots of polish in a confident performance, but Ayckbourn never gives her the chance to investigate her multiple boyfriends, the slightly glamorous figure she presents, why she is so fond of Clem or the need to escape into her crime fiction world. Likewise, farmer Jess played by Julia Blyth struggles to put her ideas onto paper but clearly lives a more interesting existence in this small community as part of a same-sex couple.

Host Arnold (Sean McMullan) too is really just a sketch, someone who doesn’t write creatively himself – a producer of functional guidance leaflets – but facilitates the work of others while he struggles to maintain a large home still owned by his demanding mother who is bedridden upstairs with dementia. Ayckbourn also gives Arnold someone to talk to in the set-up and aftermath of the meeting, and who can attend to his mother, but again, she has relatively little independent life in this script and Ilsa’s (Isabelle Boreham) has no opportunities to put her outsider status to good use as either a conduit for the drama or for the kind of character implosion that this kind of routine would usually necessitate.

So, Act Two becomes the purpose of Improbable Fiction, the place where Arnold’s suggested collaboration comes to fruition, not because the group do create something together but as a magical interlude that happens to Arnold as everyone leaves. Ayckbourn tries on a number of different styles here; in Victorian melodrama, the modern day Arnold is confused by the mysterious haunting of a household in which the young niece is accused of insanity by the dastardly nephew, observed by a local doctor and various other servants. Ayckbourn’s master stroke is to present this as a female narrative, that of the housekeeper who speaks directly to the audience, mirroring the fiction of the time by telling her story like a journal written in retrospect, a device employed by the Brontes, Wilkie Collins and many others. Ley’s production also handles this very nicely with changes of lighting by Andrew Maxted to blend the storytelling by Blyth’s servant with traditional dramatic scenes, although the acting style is also heightened for effect and to enhance Arnold’s disorientation which works well. That Ayckbourn delivers these stories in inter-cutting chapters is interesting but the deliberately silly conclusion – that pointedly Arnold says he guessed – shows Ayckbourn gently mocking these stories and the generic tropes that he has so carefully copied.

The same is true of the second and third styles that build on first noirish crime fiction as a detective seeks to identify a murderer in the household. Ayckbourn adopts the hard-boiled style effortlessly, while noting Vivvi’s character points from her book. But, again, Ayckbourn draws the perplexed Arnold into the story as an unwitting suspect. The Tower’s production makes good use of costume again with trench coats and wide-legged trousers to create the impression of the 1930s in Ley’s timeless living room set design, and again the heightened dramatic style of performance implies both the fantasy world being created and an opportunities for additional humour as Ayckbourn lightly mocks the tropes he employs. The final section is the most obviously silly, Clem’s Science Fiction creation, the contrast of which against Arnold’s traditional home is especially enjoyable. Again, Carr, Efkeman and Putt have worked wonders with a series of garishly coloured bodysuits that create futuristic costumes for these characters that reflect the nonsensical scientific language they reel off.

Each of these mini stories has its own conclusion, one that is dictated by the conventions of the genre while Ayckbourn, and this Tower Theatre production, leave the audience with the feeling that nothing significant has happened at all, just a bit of light relief. Improbable Fiction is not Ayckbourn’s best work and there’s very little comedic build up that investigates character and scenario in the writer’s usual way, but what you get instead is something more subversive as though Ayckbourn is telling us that the fictions we create are lots of fun but these gossamer-thin escapes from reality leave very little impression once they’re gone. Historical, Science and Crime Fiction, children’s stories and musicals, even his own play are just a bit of light relief and nothing more.

Improbable Fiction is at the Tower Theatre until 12 November. Tickets are £13 with concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of cultural activities in London, primarily covering theatre, but also exhibitions and film events. Since 2014, I have written for The Reviews Hub as part of the London theatre critic team, professionally reviewing over 800 shows in that time. The Reviews Hub was established in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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