ALAN Ayckbourn wrote his first play for the SJT, under a pseudonym, in 1958, and writer and theatre have been pretty much constant companions for six decades.
Constant Companions is his 89th play and second premiere of the year after Welcome To The Family at the Old Laundry Theatre at Bowness-on-Windermere in May. That one travelled from the near future to the past; now he goes back to the future again, one just around the corner, “some time soon to come” where science fiction becomes science friction, but whether past or future, as ever Ayckbourn is above all else reflecting the present, our constant characteristics.
In Ayckbourn’s words, Constant Companions is “a look at a very possible future – in fact a very probable future of androids and artificial intelligence”, built around three parallel stories on Kevin Jenkins’ tripartite set design, each rooted in a relationship between human and robot. Who is in control? Who is malfunctioning more? Only time will tell.
In his bachelor pad, bored, lonely Don (Andy Cryer) is trying to assemble his new robo-sex toy, his Konstant Kompanion, designed to his desire for a big bust, who, once assembled, is never seen but heard from the bedroom inflicting disasters on his bathroom to pratfall comic effect.
Helping Don, on the phone but distractedly, is Leigh Symonds’ Winston, with plenty on his hands already re-tuning ED (Naomi Petersen), the attic-abiding, errant automaton maid of Andrea De Santo ((Tanya Loretta-Dee)
An engineer working on the hoof, by the manual but by trial and error too, he has the manner of a diffident, crushed soul, but goes from lost-love deflation to reinflation by ED’s seductive manner. There will be a sting in this tale, one of manipulation, but their central scene is beautifully written, confessional, gradually revealing, and slower paced than the comedy that fizzes around it.
In her sleek executive office, with all its hi-tech mod cons and a swishly dressed assistant (Georgia Burnell’s aspirational Sylvia), high-powered lawyer Lorraine (Alexandra Mathie) has red-carded her rotter husband in favour of JAN 60 (Richard Stacey), a smooth-operator robot janitor as calmly efficient and deadpan as a Wodehouse butler but with the humour button set to hyena-manic and an alarmingly agreeable, pre-programmed manner, right word, right place, right time.
Linking all three bereft human stories is a need for love and companionship, but what of the androids’ motives, their needs, their rights, where will all that artificial intelligence lead? A prescient darkness is at play in Ayckbourn’s mischief-making, a sense of inevitability too where the human failings, vulnerabilities and contrary own goals of today will have ultimate consequences in our imminent tomorrows.
You could call it gallows humour. The Ayckbourn truth is we shall never change, pre-programmed in our own way to fall in love, to fail, to self-destroy, to still crave affection, and we shall laugh at those failings in the company of this ever astute writer-director’s typically brilliant cast. The androids, however, will of course have the last laugh. The ultimate mod con at our expense.
ALAN Ayckbourn’s 89th play, Constant Companions, opens tonight (7/9/2023) at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, looking cautiously just around the corner to a world of AI and android love.
In his second play of the year set in the not-too-distant future, after May’s run of Welcome To The Family at The Old Laundry Theatre, Bowness-on-Windermere, he weaves together the stories of lawyer Lorraine, lonely bachelor Don and technician Winston with Ayckbournian humour and a shot of compassion.
Lorraine is a fabulously successful lawyer of a certain age. Jan Sixty is the janitor of her building, an android of indeterminate age. In this vision of our future, where humans have turned to artificial friends for companionship without compromise, Ayckbourn ponders whether Lorraine and Jan can find true love.
“Reading so much about the inevitable arrival of AI into our society – some would say it’s already here! – I felt a cautious look forward might be in order,” he says.
“Are we really prepared for an encounter with another race? Not from outer space, but one of our own creation which will inevitably eventually turn out to be a lot smarter than we are? Honestly, the human race! As if we didn’t have enough problems already.”
At 84, Star Wars aficionado Ayckbourn is enjoying speculating on human interaction in the years ahead. “I feel I’m standing at the point in my writing where I have the choice of looking back and looking forward,” he says. “With Family Album [last autumn’s SJT premiere], I was looking back from a modern perspective, over my conscious lifetime.
“This time I thought, ‘let’s look ahead’, though next year I will probably look backwards again, so it’s a see-saw.”
Welcome To The Family straddled both worlds, taking its protagonist, Josh, and his fiancée Sara back to his childhood world from the future with the aid of his wicked Uncle Lance’s gift of a state-of-the-art ‘Capture’ visit to the past that enables him to revisit his deceased parents and family home whenever he likes.
“Everything I write about set in the past could recur in the future,” says Alan. “Thematically, in Constant Companions, the issues raised by AI are the new challenge, and the more one reads the news, Artificial Intelligence is coming and is very nearly here already [in the form of robots].
“Its social impact will be enormous, and the issues we thought were settled, in terms of class and race, will rise again, where they will be considered a different class and a different race, so all these problems will be reactivated. If we think we are on the road to sexual equality, we have another think (CORRECT) coming.
“Maybe we can imagine a colour-blind, sexuality-blind future, but the same things are going to happen again. The interesting thing is that these new creations, these new ‘humans’, will outlive us by millennia.”
Alan considers a second question: “Why have other planets not made contact with us if they are so advanced? But we’ve only been here for ten seconds, compared to the billions and trillions that the universe has been ticking over.
“I have this vision that in the long-distant future, we would eventually make contact or they would contact us, not through human, but artificial intelligence embracing each other, so that android will shake hand with android.”
Ayckbourn’s play projects into a future where the android will miss humanity. “I feel that despite the precautions we can build into the development of AI, that takeover will eventually occur, even if they don’t go berserk and run amok with a machine gun,” he says. “It will be humane, looking after us until the last hospice in town closes down.”
Ayckbourn finds humour, both wry and dry, in contemplating “mixed relationships occurring, as I foresee they might”. “Humans will pair up with androids simply because they will be mixing, and there will be these rather fetching androids looking after our every need,” he says. “But the play looks beyond that to when the woman is in old age, beset with memory loss, and the consequences of that, because the human race is stuffed with foibles and things will go wrong in us.”
In a third Ayckbourn drama for 2023, he will make a rare outing as an actor on September 17 alongside the Constant Companions cast of Georgia Burnell, Andy Cryer, Tanya-Loretta Dee, Alexandra Mathie, Naomi Petersen, Richard Stacey and Leigh Symonds, plus SJT alumnae Christopher Godwin and John Bramwell, in a rehearsed reading of Truth Will Out, his Covid-cancelled 2020 play for the SJT.
In this up-to-the-minute satire on family, relationships, politics and the state of the nation, everyone has secrets. Certainly, former shop steward George does, as do his right-wing MP daughter Janet, investigative journalist Peggy and senior civil servant Sefton.
Cue one tech-savvy teenager with a mind of his own and time on his hands to bring their worlds tumbling down – and maybe everyone else’s along with them.
Here was Ayckbourn’s virus play, written before Coronavirus stopped everything (although Ayckbourn subsequently wrote prodigiously in lockdown). Now he will hear Truth Will Out read aloud for the first time. Truth will out, no matter the delay.
Alan Ayckbourn’s Constant Companions, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, tonight until October 7; Truth Will Out, rehearsed reading, September 17, 2.30pm. Box office: 01723 370541 or sjt.uk.com.
AYCKBOURN and android love, traction engines and farming photography, comic fantasy and anecdotal Love stories keep Charles Hutchinson busy as summer exits stage left.
Premiere of the week: Alan Ayckbourn’s Constant Companions, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, Thursday to October 7
IN Alan Ayckbourn’s 89th play, Lorraine is a fabulously successful lawyer of a certain age. Jan Sixty is the janitor of her building, an android of indeterminate age. In a not-too-distant future, where humans have turned to artificial friends for companionship without compromise, can Lorraine and Jan find true love?
“Reading so much about the inevitable arrival of AI into our society – some would say it’s already here! – I felt a cautious look forward might be in order,” says Alan. Box office: 01723 370541 or sjt.uk.com.
Full steam ahead: Yorkshire Traction Engine Rally, Scampston Hall, Scampston, near Malton, today and tomorrow, 9am to 5pm
THE Yorkshire Traction Engine Rally, organised by Outdoor Shows, takes over Scampston Hall’s parkland this weekend. Among the steam fair attractions will be tractor pulling, steam engines, classic cars, vintage tractors, classic motorcycles, fairground organs, miniature steam engines, stationary engines and vintage commercials.
In the main arena, Flyin Ryan and his motorcycle stunt team deliver daredevil antics, comedy routines, fire stunts and arena entertainment, while the Scarborough Fair Collection stages two days of music and magic extravaganzas. Box office: scampston.co.uk or outdoorshows.co.uk.
Recalling the “quiet Beatle”: The George Harrison Project, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, tonight, 7.30pm
MARKING the Beatles legend’s 80th anniversary, this tribute show to George Harrison embraces his Fab Four, solo and Traveling Wilburys supergroup years.
Here come Here Comes The Sun, Something, Taxman, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, My Sweet Lord, All Things Must Pass, Got My Mind Set On You, Handle With Care, Give Me Love, What Is Life, If I Needed Someone, Cheer Down and many more. Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.
Geek of the week: York Unleashed Comic-Con, York Racecourse, Knavesmire, York, tomorrow, 11am to 5pm
YORK actor David Bradley, from the Harry Potter films, Game Of Thrones and Doctor Who, leads the guest appearances at this weekend’s “geekiest, nerdiest” gathering. Lee Boardman, Clive Russell, Richard Gibson and Kit Hardman will be there too, along with comic creators and authors Sasha Ray Art, Carolyn Craggs, Lindsey Greyling, KS Marsden, Kelvin VA Allison Paolo Debernardi, Victoria Bates and Ben Sawyer.
Look out too for Geeky Attractions on three sites, including a Back To The Future time machine, a retro gaming area, Star Wars display, children’s activities, art area, stage talks, cosplay masquerade and geeky market selling merchandise and collectables. Tickets update: available on the door from 11am.
Fundraiser of the week:Don Pears and Singphonia presents The Great American Songbook – From A To Z Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, tomorrow, 4pm
DON Pears and Singphonia explore the vast scope of the Great American Songbook from the 1900s to the present, from Al Jolson to Beyoncé, covering spirituals and jazz through rock’n’roll and Rat Pack standards to modern hits, not forgetting musical theatre too.
Musical director Pears and his group of York singers perform solos, duets, and group numbers, taking in Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Judy Garland, Elvis Presley, John Denver and The Carpenters in a fundraiser for the JoRo. Box office: 01904 501395 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.
Tribute show of the show: Don’t Stop Believin’, Grand Opera House, York, tomorrow, 7.30pm
JUMP aboard the midnight train, heaven is a place on Earth called York, for this end-of-the-night anthems spectacular, a new feelgood tribute show that promises a crazy, crazy night of non-stop, singalong favourites.
Hits by Blondie, Bryan Adams, Cher, Rainbow, Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, Starship, Europe and Belinda Carlisle feature among the 30 songs in this high-energy theatre production with “a sizzling cast, fantastic costumes and amazing light show”. Box office: atgtickets.com/york.
Anecdotes of the week: The One Like Judi Love, York Theatre Royal, Thursday, 8pm
EXPECT unrelenting, humorous anecdotes from “the one like Judi Love” on her first official talk tour, full of stories from the Hackney stand-up comedian and presenter’s life.
Regular Loose Women panellist Love, 43, has appeared on Taskmaster, The Jonathan Ross Show, The Graham Norton Show, 8 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown and the Royal Variety Performance too. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Getting the swing of things:Alligator Gumbo, At The Mill, Stillington, near York, Friday, 7.30pm
SUMMER At The Mill welcomes Alligator Gumbo for a night of swing/jazz from the New Orleans heyday. In particular, the Leeds seven-piece focuses on the raw music of the roaring 1920s, largely improvised with melodies and solos happening simultaneously.
Performing extensively for more than ten years, Alligator Gumbo have played international jazz festivals and clubs throughout the country with their good-natured mix of foot-stomping rhythms, tap-away tunes and raucous singalongs. Bar At The Mill will be running from 6.30pm, alongside the wood-fired pizzas. Box office: tickettailor.com/events/atthemill/942447.
Outdoor cinema: City Screen Picturehouse presents Movies In The Moonlight, Museum Gardens, York, Mamma Mia!, September 8, 7.30pm, and Barbie (12A), September 9, 7.30pm
PICTUREHOUSE Outdoor Cinema returns to the York Museum Gardens for open-air screenings of Phyllida Lloyd’s 2008 Abba hit-laden musical rom-com Mamma Mia! (PG) and this summer’s splash-of-pink box-office smash, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie (12A). Free samples of Mochi Balls from ice cream makers Little Moons can be enjoyed on both nights.
Whether on a girls’ night out or a family & friends evening, audience members are encouraged to dress up – and sing along too on the Mamma Mia! Night. Box office: picturehouses.com/outdoor-cinema/venue/york-museum-gardens.
Exhibition launch of the week: Fields, Folds and Farming Life, Nunnington Hall, Nunnington, near York, September 9 to December 17; 10.30am to 5pm, last entry at 4.15pm, with reduced winter hours from November 24
FIELDS, Folds and Farming Life, an exhibition by Yorkshire documentary, travel and portrait photographer Valerie Mather, captures candid moments from a year in the lives of upland farmers in Bransdale, a valley and surrounding moorland in North Yorkshire.
The combination of Mather’s work and specially produced films and artwork reveals the hard work and determination of the farming community in navigating the ever-changing agricultural world to achieve a better farming future for people, the environment and wildlife. No booking is required; exhibition included in admission price at this National Trust property.More details at nationaltrust.org.uk/visit/yorkshire/nunnington-hall.