Although the title covers part of the plot, the play is really a trenchant social history of Britain from 1925 – 1985 in four short sequences, showing the changes that take place in one house over 60 years and following the career of one everyman, Anthony Spates, known familiarly as Tony. It also follows the women in Tony’s life who help him, love him and leave him in each of four decades. While Antony Eden plays the phlegmatic Tony at four stages in his life (17, 37, 57 and 77) with equal aplomb, the rest of the cast play four characters each, a remarkable feat, as time marches on. A Brief History of Women has the depth of a novel and the breath of an epic.
The equally remarkable set by Kevin Jenkins depicts parts of four separate areas on the ground floor of a Georgian country house, Kirkbridge Manor. When we see it first in 1925, it reveals a study, the hall, the ballroom and the terrace. Over the years, the manor will be converted for three different uses, as life in Britain changes, while the rooms will still keep their architectural shape but not their décor.
When we first meet Tony, he is 17, a farmer’s son, and a temporary footman at Kirkbridge Manor in 1925 during the engagement party for Lord Kirkbridge’s stepdaughter Lady Cynthia. But all is not well in the house of Kirkbridge. Lady Caroline, who is a victim of spousal abuse, can’t get her husband to come out of his study from his interview with his daughter’s prospective fiancé Captain Fergus Ffluke, and Lord Edward has neither written a new will for his third wife nor arranged for her daughter’s dowry. However, when Lady Caroline takes a shine to the new footman, it will change his life – and hers – in surprising ways.
Twenty years later (1945) when the British aristocracy can no longer afford large country houses, Kirkwood Manor has been reinvented as a Preparatory School for Girls. Tony is now an English and Geography teacher under the thumb of the conservative Dr. Wyn Williams, headmaster and teacher of Classics. The study is now the staff room and the ballroom has been converted into the school gymnasium which also serves for the school assembly. Although Tony and Ursula Brock, History teacher, age 25, think they are being very discreet, the strait-laced and Victorian Dr. Williams warns Tony about their being too demonstrative in public. However, Ursula is still getting over the death of her previous fiancé in W.W. II and need a great deal of reassurance. On the night of the bonfire and fireworks for Guy Fawkes Day, it all goes south.
The school does not survive the social upheaval of the fifties and sixties and when we next meet Tony, aged 57, he is now administrator of the Kirkbridge Arts Center, with the staff room now his office, the ballroom now a theater, and the terrace turned into the theater’s green room. Currently, the theater is being rented by the Pendon Players for its Christmas pantomime, Jack and the Beanstalk. However, actor and director Dennis Dunbar, who is unfaithful to his wife, is an egotist playing the lead, building the sets, doing the lighting and even tearing the tickets. Crises after crises occurs when actress Anthea gets hurt in an accident and socialist actor Rory goes off in a huff, leaving Tony with Dunbar’s lonely wife Gillian. One never knows where one’s next stage will turn up from.
In the 1985 sequence, the house has been turned into a luxury hotel restoring the premise to some of its former grandeur. The office is now a sumptuous disabled access bedroom, the theater has been transformed into the resident’s lounge and bar, and the terrace has been restored as a path to the gardens. Widower Tony, now retired ten years, is filling in for the general manager who is on vacation. The newest guests are relatives of the Kirkbridges who once owned the manor. When the young recently married couple Tilly and Jim Seabourne-Watson show up with her great-great grandmother, Tony is confronted with someone from his long distant past as well as the changes time as wrought to the house over the years. Do houses remember? Tony and his aged guest certainly do.
Directed by Ayckbourn himself as have all of his biannual Stephen Joseph Theatre transfers to 59E59 Theaters, A Brief History of Women could not be more impeccably cast. As our eyes and ears (we can’t hear what goes on in a room unless Tony enters it), Eden gives a remarkably controlled performance, almost never giving away an emotion. This may be a satire on the traditional British stiff upper lip, or just be Ayckbourn’s everyman. Even more remarkable are the four performances by Russell Dixon as all of the older men: the cruel and misogynistic Lord Edward, the Victorian pedant Dr. Williams, the pompous, pushy and promiscuous Dennis Dunbar, and Gordon, the silent hall porter. He makes each character so different that he seems to be four totally different actors.
The other performers also have a field day in roles with extremely different requirements. Frances Marshall is first seen as sorely abused Lady Caroline, the German speaking Swiss French teacher Miss Miller, the vivacious and bubby actress Pat Wriggly and as the elderly great-great grandmother in the hotel sequence. Laura Matthews gets to play the flighty debutante Lady Cynthia, the love-starved Ursula Brock, the taciturn, grumpy stage manager Jenny Tyler and the too perky and bubbly great-great granddaughter Tilly.
Louise Shuttleworth plays a series of very different middle-aged women: the bigoted and partly deaf mother-in-law to be (Mrs. Reginald Ffluke), the acidic math teacher and unmarried Phoebe Long, the gregarious but forlorn Gillian Dunbar, and the cheerful hotel receptionist, Ruby Jensen. Last but not least is tall, athletic Laurence Pears as Lady Cynthia’s fiancé Capt. Fergus in complete Scottish and army regalia, Mr. Desmond Kennedy, the Sports teacher, Rory Tudor, the sulky actor who points out that the pantomime is both racially and socially prejudiced, and Jim Seabourne-Watson, the supportive great-great grandson-in-law of one of Kirkbridge’s original residents.
Besides the three series of changes to the manor house, Kevin Jenkins is also responsible for the four sets of period costumes which define the characters, the time period and the social changes over the 60 years covered by the play. Jason Taylor’s lighting design is not only required to deal with various times of day, but the lights go up and down each time Tony leaves one of the rooms. Simon Slater has composed the music which introduces each era.
In A Brief History of Women, the brilliantly inventive Alan Ayckbourn has created a story which covers the entire life of one man but also delineates the changes in Britain over 60 years, a fateful period of time when life changed a great deal from an aristocratic society to a more democratic and equitable one both for men as well as women who were under the husbands’ thumbs when the play begins. Though Ayckbourn’s hero Anthony Spates reacts little to the forces that buffet him, this remarkable play offers four slices of life in one sitting. It is also a series of love stories which tell the story of one man’s history with women.
A Brief History of Women (through May 27, 2018)
Brits Off Broadway Festival 2018
Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, England
59E59 Theatres, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission