Private Fears In Public Places: World Premiere Reviews

Note: It is worth bearing in mind that the original production of Private Fears In Public Places received a largely lukewarm reception from British critics. Only when the same production (with an unaltered script and a largely unchanged cast) opened in New York a year later to rapturous reviews (in particular from The New York Times), did it begin to gain a more positive response from British critics in later productions.
To show this progression, this page contains a selection of reviews from the world premiere production at Scarborough in 2004, Michael Billington's perceptive review of the same production at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, in 2005, and finally Charles Isherwood's review of the 2005 transfer of this production to New York.

Private Fears In Public Places (by Quentin Letts)
"Few things are more wrenching, on the first night after a family member has died, than the sight of his pyjamas.
Perhaps this is a terribly English thing to say, a distinctly English detail to note, but I know it to be true. Horribly true.
In Sir Alan Ayckbourn's latest masterly filleting of the English mind one of his characters silently holds a dead man's pyjamas and realises the things are no longer needed. In that moment - wham! - the loneliness hits home.
The reason Ayckbourn's plays are so strong - and this latest, premiered last night, is no exception - is that he gently shows us English who we are. There are few histrionics. Just quiet, wry observations which lead an audience to greater self-knowledge.
Private Fears in Public Places makes for a super night out, offering laughs and the occasional tug of a tear.
It features a Sloaney girl whose engagement to a prune-chinned former Army officer is going wrong in the classic English, unspoken manner. Melanie Gutteridge, as the Sloane, has the sharpest of accents and the tightest of inner rubber-bands. Yet she never quite snaps. Women of her class must not.
Her Army boyfriend (Stephen Beckett) is dim almost beyond credibility. A little less mustard on that lump of beef, I'd advise.
Musing on the difference between the sexes, he says women go round in gangs and never stop talking. 'That's why they don't make ideal astronauts,' he says.
Around the crumbling engagement circulate other lonely lives: a bereaved hotel barman, a Bible basher with a dark secret and a quiet little estate agent who lives with his toothy spinster sister.
The latter is superbly done by Paul Kemp, bringing out the polite melancholy of English suburbia.
Throughout the play there are half-completed sentences as characters struggle with their embarrassment. Half-finished sentences, half-lived lives.
Lofty aesthetes sometimes sneer at Ayckbourn. So what. This man knows his way round Middle England better than a Sutton Coldfield cabbie."
(Daily Mail, 18 August 2004)

Private Fears In Public Places (by John Peter)
"This is minor Ayckbourn, which is like saying: "This is only an 18-carat diamond." It has six characters in search of a life, and its short scenes overlap and interlock. Nicola (Melanie Gutteridge) is a cut-glass bitch getting impatient with her lover, Dan (Stephen Beckett), an army officer cashiered for incompetence. Their estate agent (Paul Kemp) watches porn videos lent by his colleague Charlotte (Billie-Claire Wright), which appals his spinster sister, Imogen (Sarah Moyle). Meanwhile, Imogen meets Dan, through personals, in his favourite hotel bar; the barman (Adrian McLoughlin) employs Charlotte as a part-time carer for his dying father, and she makes, er, quite an impact. This may sound complex, but it isn't. Ayckbourn's construction has a masterly clarity; his writing combines ruthless observation with mature tolerance. Nobody else writing today can create a sense of a complicated little world in 90 minutes, or make banal lives seem so unforgivably interesting. Listen: it's a master's voice."
(Sunday Times, 29 August 2004)

Private Fears In Public Places (by Alfred Hickling)
"Here's one to baffle future Ayckbourn scholars. Ten years ago, Ayckbourn announced a play about farewells and departures to be called
Private Fears in Public Places, but abandoned the idea and wrote Communicating Doors instead.
Whatever happened to that original play remains a mystery, because this is clearly not it. The revised
Private Fears - Ayckbourn's second new offering of the summer is an enigmatic piece about failure and forgiveness, appended to a title that was clearly too good to waste.
Nicola and Dan are well-heeled, hearty types whose desperate flat-hunting belies the fact that their relationship is falling apart. Stewart, their timid estate agent, whiles away the evenings watching television while his equally lonely sister Imogen endures a disappointing round of dating agency assignments. Ambrose, a mordant bartender, is stuck at home with his ailing dad, while the home-help, Charlotte, is a scary Christian fundamentalist with a sideline in erotic dancing.
Played over a taut 90 minutes*, without an interval, the action flits stealthily through a skein of hints and ambiguities towards a revelation that never quite arrives. Dan has been drummed out of the army for an unexplained misdemeanour. Ambrose is in thrall to an abusive father, possibly because he's gay. And it's never made explicit how the Bible-wielding Charlotte holds down so many jobs at the same time.
One suspects that Charlotte holds the key to the work, though Billie-Claire Wright never quite locates the lock. There's an outstanding comic set piece in which Stephen Beckett's Dan and Sarah Moyle's Imogen pair up on a drunken blind date; but as a study of the pains of unfulfillment, the play feels strangely unfulfilling."
(The Guardian, 20 August 2004)

* It's not clear why Alfred Hickling noted the play ran for 90 minutes, as show reports for this particular evening and the entire original run of the play show the play-length was consistently in the region of 105 minutes.

Private Fears In Public Places (by Dave Windass)
"This is not the first time that Alan Ayckbourn has demonstrated the influence that the world of film has had upon his work. This is a highly cinematic piece which reveals how six lives interweave by jump-cutting and dissolving through seven days of action.
Comic Potential (Buster Keaton-style slapstick), How The Other Half Loves (Mike Figgis at his split screen best) and a host of others, this new work, set in London, shows that Ayckbourn's mind works in flashing, brilliant, moving pictures. In this instance, however, the overall concept and the theme of the struggle of combating the constant fear of growing old and lonely is, perhaps, better than the storytelling.
Thanks to the miracle of Mick Hughes' lighting rather than the gamut of set changes that more than 50 scenes would appear to dictate, the action takes place in various flats, an office, sitting room, kitchen, cafe and the hotel bar where Stephen Beckett's hooray Henry of a disgraced soldier, Dan, is taking refuge from his pushy princess of a partner Nicola (Melanie Gutteridge). He tells all to barman Ambrose, played by Adrian McLoughlin, an essentially shy man struggling to care for his obnoxious father.
Ambrose drafts in the sex-mad Charlotte (Billie-Claire Wright) to help out, which she does in a rather unorthodox manner. Charlotte also works for the same estate agent as Paul Kemp's ultra-nervous Stewart, brother of lonely Imogen, the comedically awesome Sarah Moyle.
With three strong female performers, Ayckbourn's ability to write quality parts for women shines once again. But like life itself, there are a few too many loose strands left dangling at the end for this to be a wholly satisfying piece, even with such interesting staging."
(The Stage, 2 November 2004)

Ayckbourn Cast Tied Up In Emotional Knots (by Charles Hutchinson)
"The six actors who opened the Stephen Joseph Theatre summer season in one Alan Ayckbourn premiere close the Scarborough summer back where they started: the same six in another Ayckbourn premiere, having learned more about each other and themselves.
This symmetry is reprised by the characters in
Private Fears In Public Places: six self-contained, insular, stymied lives end back where they began. Each is still in search of a move upwards and onwards, some of them are no happier, shackled by past or present circumstance.
Ayckbourn says the theme of his grave, emotionally-knotted play is the knock-on effect that our individual actions have upon another person, sometimes a complete stranger.
"We may not even be aware of this," he says. "Nonetheless, we are all of us linked; we are all related. And whether we like it or not, none of us can truly stand alone or indeed remain aloof or immune."
He sets the play in London, the metropolis where loneliness can feel heightened, as the dodgem cars on life's highway go about their speeding business all around you. Together with designer Pip Leckenby, he presents five initially lifeless settings; a sofa and table; an office desk and chair; an hotel bar and two chairs; and two sets of table and chairs (one of which will double as a flat and bar). Some are private, others are public, and fears will be exposed in all of them.
Stewart (Paul Kemp) is a couch-potato estate agent, stuck on pre-cooked TV dinners and struck on the lithe receptionist, Charlotte (Billie-Claire Wright), at his office. He may deal in moving for a living but he frets over making a move on her.
His sense of inadequacy is palpable, and his sister, Imogen (Sarah Moyle), is no more self-confident, for all her pretence of meeting up with the girls for a drink each evening she leaves their shared flat.
Charlotte, a practising Christian with an alarming smile, is a strange one: her overbearing relationship with God and the Bible has her looking after the curmudgeonly, bedridden father of barman Ambrose (Adrian McLoughlin) each night, yet she delights in sexually taunting Stewart with home-made porn videos. Where others are dysfunctional, she is malfunctioning.
Repressed gay barman Ambrose, once dominated by his mother, now tied to his Alf Garnett father, spends his day half-listening to the rambling thoughts of Dan (Stephen Beckett). Discharged without honour from his father's beloved Army, Dan is at a loss what to do next beyond ordering the next drink. He and his brusque Sloane Street fiancée (Melanie Gutteridge) have lost interest in each other.
This is a slow-burning psycho-drama, with no interval to interrupt the flow, and the comedy is discomfiting, the characters empathetic, and the playing of Beckett and Moyle particularly good."
(Yorkshire Evening Press, 18 August 2004)

London Transfer, 2005

Private Fears In Public Places (by Michael Billington)
Because he has been around so long, we tend to take Alan Ayckbourn for granted. But his 67th play, touching down in Richmond between Scarborough and New York, strikes me as one of his recent best; and although Ayckbourn himself describes it as cinematic, possibly because of its 110-minute length, I'd call it quintessentially theatrical in its Chekhovian ability to wring laughter out of quiet desperation.
The clue lies in the title: Ayckbourn is writing about those people who, amid the noisy clatter of bars, cafes and offices, are wreathed in perpetual solitude. Dan, a cashiered army officer, gets pissed nightly to cover the collapse of his long-standing engagement to upper-class Nicola. The loveless Imogen escapes from her estate agent brother, Stewart, to spend forlorn nights waiting for non-arriving agency dates. And while Ambrose, a middle-aged barman, secretly grieves over the death of his male lover, the Bible-reading Charlotte is racked by the urgent temptations of the flesh.
"Only connect," said EM Forster; but the tragedy of Ayckbourn's sextet is that, although their lives ingeniously intersect, they remain inescapably solitary. Which makes the play sound much gloomier than it is, since Ayckbourn extracts buoyant comedy out of his characters' secret selves. Alexandra Mathie brilliantly suggests the raging sensualist under Charlotte's demure exterior as she smilingly hands over camouflaged porn videos to Paul Kemp's shy estate agent.
The scene where Sarah Moyle's lonely Imogen hooks up with Paul Thornley's drink-fuelled Dan, meanwhile, is hilariously touching in that it reveals that both possess an appetite for life that goes sadly unsatisfied. For all my attacks on the modish tyranny of the interval-free play, Ayckbourn's gains enormously from being played straight through. His own production also fits very snugly into the Orange Tree, where the characters' necessary physical closeness counterpoints their ultimate spiritual separation.
With Melanie Gutteridge's nervy Nicola and Adrian McLoughlin's secretly sad barman completing a fine cast, this is a play that shows Ayckbourn has not lost his rare, undervalued gift for comic compassion.
(The Guardian, 9 May 2005)

New York Premiere, 2005

The reception to Private Fears In Public Places American premiere at the Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59 Theaters, New York, could not have been more different to the British reception. Not only did the play itself generate extraordinary reviews, but the American critics seemed to better grasp the play itself than most of their British counter-parts. It is debatable why this is the case, but it would seem fair to suggest that American critics are not weighed down by preconceptions of Alan Ayckbourn and his plays.
The New York Times, arguably the most influential publisher of reviews for Broadway, gave an extensive and extraordinary review of Private Fear In Public Places which is reprinted here.

All Are Together, And Everyone Is Alone (by Charles Isherwood)
Private Fears in Public Places
has sneaked into New York almost unheralded… as the jewel in the crown of the Brits Off Broadway festival. A minor-key comedy about six Londoners leading lives of quiet desperation, it is rueful, funny, touching and altogether wonderful. It runs only through July 3, which would break my heart if Sir Alan and his fine company hadn't already done the job.
The production marks the United States debut* of Sir Alan's repertory troupe from the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, England, where virtually all of his plays have had their premieres. The sensitivity and simplicity of the performances on view here inspire the fanciful thought that Scarborough should be anointed a Mecca for admirers of first-rate, frill-free acting. I'm ready to make a pilgrimage if this production represents the company's everyday standard.
Sir Alan is a comic playwright; he has often been called, half-disparagingly, Britain's Neil Simon. But he has written in a wide variety of comic modes, from traditional farces to comedies of manners to ruminative character studies. In his weaker plays he has often relied on gimmickry to gussy up rote essays on love and other domestic problems of the British middle classes.
House & Garden, for instance, the last Ayckbourn plays to be seen in a major New York production, were performed in adjoining theaters by the same cast simultaneously.
But there is virtually no artifice in
Private Fears in Public Places. (Private Lives would have been a more apt and economical title, but that was taken.) A delicate play with the transparent texture of a piece of chamber music, it comprises dozens of brief scenes, most with no obvious comic payoff. Some are wordless tableaus: a woman sitting alone in a cafe, shrinking sadly into a cappuccino cup, a man moored in an armchair before a flickering television screen, lost in wonder at what he sees before him.
For audiences used to comedy that grabs you by the throat, if not in more private places, patience may be needed, but it is richly rewarded. By the end of this intermission-less evening, these quiet, loosely overlapping scenes gradually cohere to compose a collective portrait of contemporary urban isolation that feels uncommonly wise and tender and true.
The characters are two-a-penny types drawn with fine brush strokes. Stewart (Paul Kemp) is a meek real estate agent who shares a flat with his sister Imogen (Sarah Moyle), a receptionist. Imogen, a little lumpen and, like Stewart, sliding inexorably into middle age, answers personal ads, disguising her generally unsuccessful forays as nights out with the girls. On a lucky evening she meets the handsome, hunky Dan (Paul Thornley), an ex-army officer who was recently kicked out of his flat by his frustrated girlfriend, Nicola (Melanie Gutteridge). She's tired of waiting for him to get his life in gear.
The links between characters are forged by everyday circumstance, not the mechanics of dramaturgy. Until Dan and Nicola separated, they were shown apartments by Stewart, for instance, while Dan's days before and after the breakup are spent exchanging desultory chat with Ambrose (Adrian McLoughlin), the barman at a nearby hotel. The play's sixth character, Sir Alan's most peculiar, is Stewart's prim assistant, Charlotte (Alexandra Mathie), who moonlights as a caregiver for the elderly and is hired by Ambrose to spend nights tending to his abusive, bedbound father.
Charlotte's beatific smile and her ever-at-hand Bible belie a secret life that she accidentally - or perhaps not accidentally - divulges to Stewart when she lends him a videotape of an inspirational program she admires. Stewart, armchair-bound and pushing his grocery-store dinner around the plate, lets the tape run on, only to hear the uplifting tones pointing the path to happiness give way to moans of sexual delight: Can it be that Charlotte has a taste for hardcore porn?
The ramifications of this revelation provide some of the play's more pointedly comic moments, but Sir Alan never allows his humour to warp the humanity of his characters. Charlotte's dilemma - the inner battle she wages daily between her sexual impulses and the flesh-denying dictates of her beliefs - is merely a more absurd version of the conflicts besetting all the characters. Each struggles with the problem of how and when secret anxieties and hopes should be divulged to friends, lovers and strangers, what must be risked to forge the connections that sustain life and give it richness.
Sir Alan's flawless cast amplifies the emotional impact of his writing in variously subtle and hilarious ways. All of the performers here respect and understand the depth in the spareness of his writing, the economy that is a welcome consequence of his long experience as a playwright. Sir Alan may have nothing left to prove, but clearly he has much yet to say.
(New York Times, 15 June 2005)

* It was actually the New York debut of the Stephen Joseph Theatre company in an Ayckbourn play.

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