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Henceforward... at the Theatre Royal Windsor

Published by: Clare Brotherwood on 15th Feb 2017 | View all blogs by Clare Brotherwood

Alan Ackybourn really is astonishing. His characters have often been ordinary, even boring, people whose lives usually go no further than their suburban gardens. And yet, through his powers of observation and his unrivalled talent he makes them into roles which have had audiences transfixed for over 50 years and have professionals and am dram societies alike clamouring to perform his plays all over the world.

But Henceforward… is a world away from suburbia. And its characters are, well, not of this world. No breathing Ayckbourn’s magic into the lives of dull little families here. Instead, the actors are challenged with bringing to life and living with a robot, and a dysfunctional one at that.

The play premiered in 1987 and was the first time Ayckbourn used a robot in the storyline. Eleven years later, in Comic Potential, his second robotic character won Janie Dee three awards only ever bestowed on one other actor before or since… Judi Dench.

There are certainly award-winning performances in this production but, first, to the set the scene. Henceforward… takes place in the not too distant future when society has broken down and thugs called The Daughters of Darkness police the area where composer Jerome Watkins lives in a dingy tower block with steel shutters on the windows. It’s totally unnerving. Though written 30 years ago Ackybourn’s vision was extraordinary and nowadays is way too close for comfort. The grey, concrete walls and drab surrounds of Roger Glossop’s set is unsettling.

The play is also extremely funny. Jerome has an android, model no NAN 300F (listed in the cast as Herself!), which a neighbour gave him for spares, but though he refers to her/it as ‘a load of old scrap’, he has programmed her to walk (after a fashion) and talk (after a fashion) - with hilarious consequences. We must surmise that Jacqueline King, who plays Jerome’s unpleasant and forceful ex-wife Corinna in the second act, is indeed NAN, and, therefore, she should be praised for both monumental performances. I could never tire of watching what NAN gets up to next. Just the anticipation is pure joy.

But King is not the only actress who has to walk the walk and talk the talk of NAN. In the first act Laura Matthews plays Zoe, an escort hired by Jerome to play his fiancée so as to make his ex-wife think he has a stable home where his daughter Geain can visit. Beaten up by the Daughters of Darkness, Zoe’s various emotional states, which range from highly entertaining to down-right moving, are superbly drawn by Matthews, but there is more to come in the second act when she too becomes NAN.

There is a great deal of underlying darkness to this play, but it is so well balanced with great humour and strong characters including Nigel Hastings as the all too human Mervyn and Jessie Hart as Jerome’s complex daughter. King and Matthews understandably command the stage, but Bill Champion will stick in my mind as the troubled, humourless Jerome whose one, blind obsession loses him the thing he was looking for but had all the time.

Superbly (of course) directed by Ayckbourn himself, the production could not work without video designer Paul Stear’s special effects.

Henceforward is at the Theatre Royal Windsor until Feb 18.

Box office: 01753 853888

www.theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk

Further dates include:

 

Feb 22-25: Cambridge Arts Theatre

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