Hero's Welcome: New York Premiere ReviewsThis page contains a selection of reviews from the New York premiere of Hero's Welcome in 2016 at the 59E59 Theaters as part of the Brits Off Broadway Festival. This was a six week residency of the original production, directed by Alan Ayckbourn.
Take A Ride On The Farce Train With Two From Ayckbourn (by Ben Brantley)
Consider the mystery of the toy train. This industriously chugging mini-locomotive winds its way through Hero’s Welcome, Alan Ayckbourn’s 79th (you read that correctly) play, which just opened at 59E59 Theaters as part of the Brits Off Broadway Festival.
In a work that includes all manner of dire deceptions and betrayals, which seem guaranteed to end in tears if not in bloodshed, that little train set — which runs through the entire house of a mayor and her husband — may not seem like such a big deal. But this is a play by Mr. Ayckbourn; nothing is too small to bear revelatory weight.
The toy train and its elaborate accouterments, the pride of a middle-aged man and the despair of his tolerant wife, initially register as one of those quirky, colorful details with which comic playwrights define their characters. But by the end, this seemingly incidental plaything suggests the full dimensions of a relationship, a tragic chapter in its history and, for one character, a fate that may well be worse than death.
Little things mean a lot in the world of Mr. Ayckbourn, whose Hero’s Welcome runs in repertory with his Confusions, a bill of linked sketches written 30 years earlier. (Both productions originated at his home base, the Stephen Joseph Theatre of Scarborough, England, and are directed by the author.) The wife and husband described above, played by Elizabeth Boag and Russell Dixon, aren’t even the central figures in Hero’s Welcome. That would be the hometown hero of the title and his foreign war bride, embodied by Richard Stacey and Evelyn Hoskins.
Yet so deft is Mr. Ayckbourn’s dramatic shorthand that he can summon complete, quirkily detailed back stories for not one but three intersecting couples in a single, standard-length play. He manages to do so while engineering an elaborate plot, as full of twists and secrets as anything by Ibsen, in which everybody lies, including the British government.
Mr. Ayckbourn, 77, has built one of the most prolific and successful careers in British theater on the premise that there are no small parts, in life or onstage. In multiplay masterworks like The Norman Conquests and House and Garden, he keeps shifting points of view, so that characters hitherto in the background suddenly dominate the foreground. And no matter what their positions on the canvas, these people are usually as sad as they are funny and vice versa.
The zesty appetizers that make up Confusions (which despite being one of Mr. Ayckbourn’s most performed works is only now having its New York premiere) demonstrate that this writer’s sensibility was fully formed 32 years ago, when he was a mere stripling in his mid-40s. They’re trifles by his later standards, quick-sketch farces programmed to end with zingers.
But these five one-acters also allow you to see clearly the basic building blocks from which Mr. Ayckbourn constructs his more complex works. And even the silliest of them is steeped in the critical yet compassionate sensibility — call it sentimental cynicism — that is uniquely their creator’s.
The best-known of these is the rowdiest, Gosforth’s Fete, in which a village fair is leveled by both a thunderstorm and raging human incompetence. My personal favorite is the first on the bill, Mother Figure, in which a homebound housewife has become so used to dealing only with her inexhaustible children that she treats any adults who enter her home as if they were toddlers.
Ms. Boag plays the Mom (pricelessly) in that one, and Charlotte Harwood and Stephen Billington are the couple who live next door. All three show up in different roles in the subsequent playlet, set in a small-town hotel, with Richard Stacey appearing as the absent father from the first play. Mr. Dixon joins their ranks for the third play, and the entire cast of five is recycled for the evening’s duration.
That’s one of the primary joys of Confusions, watching chameleon performers change identities with wigs and accents, while locations are transformed by the rearrangement of simple pieces of furniture. (Michael Holt is the designer.) But there’s also the joy of seeing Mr. Ayckbourn casually play with perspective, as in a restaurant scene in which we hear only what a waiter (Mr. Billington) hears as he moves in and out of earshot between two squabbling tables for two
Hero’s Welcome has no similar antics of technique. Though it is Mr. Ayckbourn’s most recent play, it is also one of this most old-fashioned. This tale of a soldier’s return to the town he left under shady circumstances years earlier has the structure of a 19th-century melodrama in which the sins of the past overtake the placid present.
The plot’s combustible ingredients include a jilted bride, arson, and a vial of tranquilizers and a loaded gun just begging to be picked up. Yet Hero’s Welcome remains a comedy, at least in the sense that Chekhov called his plays comedies. Its characters are enjoyably silly in their pretensions and eccentricities. They are also capable of acts of genuine evil and genuine heroism.
Hero’s Welcome is a crowded work, and not just because this production crams three detailed playing spaces — which portray the home turf of the play’s three sets of couples — onto a small stage. It has more twists of plot than a season of Coronation Street.
But never make the mistake of thinking Mr. Ayckbourn doesn’t know what he’s doing. The dense, teetering structure of Hero’s Welcome is dictated by the dense, teetering class structure that still rules and stifles English life.
Now throw an outsider into this insular society, and see if she sinks or swims or makes tidal waves. That’s Madrababacascabuna (the delightful Ms. Hoskins), the young wife of the returning hero, who looks like a natural victim.
Baba, as her husband calls her, doesn’t speak English. Which leads to the expected malapropisms, as when she tells a woman whose house she has just entered, “You have a beautiful hole.” That hostess, a kind soul in a sour marriage, explains, “You’ll find that in our language there’s lots of words than can be taken in different ways.”
Having to deal with all that linguistic nuance can be burdensome, of course, and that’s more or less true of any culture. Mr. Ayckbourn, gentleman that he is, has given Baba a vaguely Eastern European-sounding language he invented just for her.
She approaches a closed world — one in which Mr. Ayckbourn’s characters are usually prisoners for life — with her own set of shiny new tools. That may sound like a handicap. But in Hero’s Welcome it’s the foreign visitor who has the advantage over the old home team that Mr. Ayckbourn has spent his fruitful career coaching into blunders.
(New York Times, 13 June 2016)
A Taste of Alan Ayckbourn (by Terry Teachout)
The Brits Off Broadway summer festival offers two plays from England’s comic Chekhov: one, a poignant drama; the other, a sampling of humorous sketches.
Alan Ayckbourn, England’s comic Chekhov, is also a famously accomplished stage director. In recent seasons 59E59 Theaters’ Brits Off Broadway summer festival has been doing theater-loving New Yorkers a signal service by importing Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, which Mr. Ayckbourn ran for 37 years, to perform his stagings of his own plays. This year’s fare includes the U.S. premiere of Hero’s Welcome, his 79th play, and the New York premiere of Confusions, a 1974 mixed bill of interconnected one-act plays. Both are musts: Confusions is funnier than just about anything else to be seen on a New York stage right now, while Hero’s Welcome is one of the most poignant dramas that Mr. Ayckbourn has given us.
First performed in 2015, Hero’s Welcome is a dark comedy of domestic strife, the story of three married couples who become ensnared in a tight tangle of mixed motives that leads inexorably to violence and despair. Unusually for Mr. Ayckbourn, Murray and Baba (Richard Stacey and Evelyn Hoskins), a returning war hero and his waif-like refugee bride, still have a fair chance at happiness, but the other two couples exemplify in sharply contrasting ways his longstanding conviction that marital life is a state in which, to paraphrase Dr. Johnson, much is to be endured—most of it by women—and little enjoyed.
The straightforwardly plotted Hero’s Welcome contains none of the virtuoso theatrical prestidigitation that is Mr. Ayckbourn’s trademark, but it does make splendidly effective use of two stock types from his rogue’s gallery of men. Brad (Stephen Billington) is a monster of masculine vanity who has spent years cowing Kara (Charlotte Harwood), his long-suffering wife, into reluctant submission by the simple expedient of insulting her at every possible opportunity: “I think when we first started out together, they were meant as sort of jokes. But as time went on…I mean, it does get me down occasionally, being called an idiot all day long, it’s bound to. You begin to wonder whether it’s true, eventually.”
As for Derek (Russell Dixon), he’s one of the pitiful nonentities who turn up regularly in Mr. Ayckbourn’s plays, an agreeable but ineffectual boob who serves as consort to Alice (Elizabeth Boag), a small-town politician who married him out of desperation after having been left at the altar by Murray and impregnated by Brad. He is, by his own deceptively cheerful admission, one of life’s losers: “I don’t mind losing. I’m used to it. I quite enjoy it, really. The way I look at it, someone has to lose, don’t they? We can’t all be winners, can we?” Incapable of imposing himself on the world, he instead devotes himself to perfecting the elaborate model railroad with which he has filled the house that he shares with Alice, who at first glance seems to run roughshod over him but at play’s end finds herself at his oh-so-kindly mercy.
Unlike the impressively substantial Hero’s Welcome, Confusions is a dessert platter, five sketches about various aspects of middle-class life. One of them, Gosforth’s Fête, is a pulverizingly ludicrous miniature farce about a small-town church bazaar that disintegrates into utter chaos when a witless know-it-all (Mr. Dixon) leaves a backstage microphone switched on just in time for the whole town to overhear…but I’d better stop there. Only in the last play, A Talk in the Park, a snapshot of five strangers sitting in a park, each of whom wants to do all of the talking and none of the listening, does Mr. Ayckbourn draw explicitly from the well of melancholy that flavors most of his major work. Yet the other four plays, even Gosforth’s Fête, are sadder than they look, and though they’re all wonderfully funny, someone pays for every laugh.
The six talented actors seen in Confusions and Hero’s Welcome handle their multiple roles so resourcefully that you’re likely to come away thinking you saw at least a dozen different people cavorting on the tiny stage of 59E59’s 195-seat theater. As for Mr. Ayckbourn’s direction, it’s so subtle, even at its silliest, that you could be forgiven for failing to notice the myriad details that bring each play to finely observed life. Has there ever been a playwright who directed his own works more skillfully and imaginatively? I doubt it.
(Wall Street Journal, 16 June 2016)
Hero's Welcome (by Charles Hutchinson)
Never go back to a former stomping ground. It can only reopen old wounds, stirring up sore memories, rivalries, jealousies, not so much in the returnee but more damagingly in those that had been left behind.
In writer-director Alan Ayckbourn's 79th play, the unwitting cataclysmic catalyst is Murray (Richard Stacey), the hero of the title, who had left his home town under a cloud 17 years ago and returns as a decorated soldier with a young Eastern European bride, Baba (Terenia Edwards in a terrific professional debut).
The town is to honour him, town band, mayoral ceremony and all, after squaddie Murray rescued children from a fire-ravaged building, but the terse mayor, Alice (Elizabeth Boag), expects him to leave again immediately. After all, he had jilted her at the altar all those years ago without explanation.
Whereas Murray has moved on, embittered Alice has stored up resentment as if in a jar, marrying the kindly, supportive but naive Derek (Russell Dixon), throwing herself into civic duty and corrupt property deals while tolerating Derek's obsession with a hi-tech model railway that has seeped into every room. The toy train will make regular appearances as Ayckbourn comes up with yet another device for visual comedy.
Alas for Alice, she cannot hurry a Murray into leaving. Instead he intends to stay, re-open his family's dilapidated hotel and settle down with Baba. Tenacious and resourceful, she in turn will learn the English language, first from an outdated guide book ("how topping") and then with a tutor, to the point where she knows more long words than all around her: another delightful Ayckbourn comic ingredient amid the prevailing bleakness.
All Murray and Baba want is peace and a new life, but not only Alice is feeling malice. Insufferable, competitive posh brute Brad (Stephen Billington) and Murray had shared a rivalry over girls in younger days that involved Alice, and he has since slunk off into a sour marriage with Kara (Emma Manton), who is trapped by his incessant verbal abuse in a loveless relationship.
Brad, one of Ayckbourn's most loathsome lousy men in his pantheon of rotten stags, sees Baba as a potential conquest to rekindle the old sparring days with Murray. "Love is only a sexual smokescreen," he sneers.
Michael Holt's set in the round is divided into the contrasting living rooms of three homes: a familiar Ayckbourn construction for comic mayhem from earlier days, but Hero's Welcome is Ibsen-black in its darkness yet still hugely humorous.
Child loss, murder, council corruption, a marriage in the fires of hell, the honour (or otherwise) of military service, paralysis, arson, all play their part as Ayckbourn's clouds thicken before a sentimental silver lining that is nevertheless outweighed by the destruction that has gone before.
Stacey's well-meaning Murray may be the maelstrom, but Ayckbourn is more intrigued by the older man, Dixon's stand-out Derek, and once more he goes to the heart of dissatisfied, frustrated women with such rare male insight. At 76, he is writing with a devastating combination of the sage and the rage.
(The Press, 10 September 2015)
Confusions & Hero's Welcome (by David Gordon)
After 79 plays, you'd think a writer would start losing his touch. But as Alan Ayckbourn proves in his tremendous new drama Hero's Welcome, he's just as wily and incisive now as he was in the early days of his career, when he was penning the likes of Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests.
Hero's Welcome is being presented in repertory with a much earlier Ayckbourn work, Confusions, as part of this year's Brits Off-Broadway festival at 59E59 Theaters. The two, which the author directs, couldn't be more different. Confusions, written in 1974, is a series of interconnected one-act playlets. Hero's Welcome, first performed in 2015, tells a single, powerful story from three different perspectives. And yet, 40 years apart, the two works are strikingly similar as both deal with how the battle of the sexes always leads to destruction.
Confusions was written to showcase the company members of the Library Theatre in Scarborough, England. Ayckbourn's goal was to astonish audiences by showing how cunning actors could change characters right before everyone's eyes. A frazzled mother begins to treat her visiting neighbors like her disobedient children. Her absent husband drunkenly attempts to bed an attractive woman he meets in a hotel bar. That bar's waiter, meanwhile, not only eavesdrops on this conversation but also overhears a political couple fighting about their failing marriage. The wife from that exchange is the guest of honor at an afternoon tea party, with disastrous results. Finally, five strangers on park benches attempt to ignore one another, but it's not as easy as it seems.
With this production, Ayckbourn achieves his original goal. The five actors, Elizabeth Boag, Charlotte Harwood, Stephen Billington, Richard Stacey, and Russell Dixon, brilliantly transform themselves into each role with a mere change of costume (Michael Holt is the production designer, providing perfectly shaggy attire and sets). Expert farceurs, they draw huge belly laughs from the play's centerpiece, Gosforth's Fête, which proves the highlight of the evening. While there's a dusty quality to it (the porno-groove incidental Muzak doesn't help), it's solidly enjoyable.
Not an ounce of dust is found on Hero's Welcome, which only proves that 41 years later, Ayckbourn is still an inventive master craftsman. At the center of the work is Murray (Richard Stacey), a soldier returning from war to the hometown he left decades earlier under dubious circumstances. He's newly married to Madrababacascabuna (Evelyn Hoskins), who speaks only the tongue of the unspecified foreign country where Murray was fighting.
Ayckbourn adds more depth to this tale by exploring not only the life of Murray and Baba (as she's called), but the way they connect with the people back home. His former best pal, Brad (Stephen Billington), is fiercely competitive in a sexual nature and verbally abusive to his wife, Kara (Charlotte Harwood). Murray's bitter ex-fiancée, Alice (Elizabeth Boag), is the town's mayor, and married to the model-train-obsessed Derek (Russell Dixon). As tensions in each relationship bubble to the surface, Murray's presence unknowingly becomes the cause of health problems, marital conflicts, and cold-blooded murder.
The writing blends Ayckbourn's signature style of menacing darkness underneath uproarious situational comedy. It's an excellent, compelling look at human resilience in the face of terror, and the things people are willing to do to make each other both miserable and happy. The performances are top-notch, with Hoskins' strong-willed Baba and Billington's purely evil Brad making the biggest impressions. Only Dixon feels like an odd person out, a decade or two older than his character should be, but charming nonetheless.
For Ayckbourn fans, the two productions, both New York premieres, are essential viewing. Those looking to see only one have a choice: frothy comedy or intense drama. Either way, this residency proves that Ayckbourn still can create a compelling theatrical universe, even as he and his prodigious output push 80.
(Theatre Mania, 9 June 2016)
Hero's Welcome (by Sandy MacDonald)
Having churned out some 79 plays over 55 years, Alan Ayckbourn could easily have run out of plot twists—but this seemingly facile master is far from depleted. Even though his latest work incorporates soap-opera elements—“a wedding that never was,” a long-held grudge or two—he engineers some real surprises, ranging from poignant to sensationalist.
The dramatic machinery is as well oiled as the shotgun that Brad (Stephen Billington), a sneering toff, sloppily props against a sofa at the beginning of the first act. He rightly assumes that his self-effacing wife, Kara (a touching Charlotte Harwood), will tidy up in his wake. But that firearm, apparently cognizant of Chekhov’s dictum, is rarely out of sight (or mind) for long.
Michael Holt’s tidy set fits three distinct milieus onto a tiny stage. We meet Murray (Richard Stacey), the hero in question, during a TV interview. Just back from a 17-year stint serving Great Britain’s interests abroad (exact arena left intentionally vague), he has been awarded a medal for singlehandedly evacuating a “kiddies’ hospital” caught in a crossfire. “I think I was the only one daft enough,” he demurs, jaw muscles clenching.
Murray’s real prize is a baby-faced bride of indeterminate origin (Evelyn Hoskins), whose octo-syllabic name he has fondly abridged to Baba. Initially, Baba speaks barely a word of English; however, her burgeoning vocabulary—accompanied by an exponential uptick in self-confidence—allows Ayckbourn to have fun with language. “Men-a-cing…Om-min-ous…Pre-dat-tory …” intones the unsuspecting Baba, practicing her vocab while babysitting on Kara’s behalf as Brad lurks nearby, a veritable wolf at his own door.
Rounding out the sextet are mayoress (“Mayor,” she insists) Alice (Elizabeth Boag), come up in the world since her chambermaid days, and her seemingly unsuitable, somewhat older “consort,” Derek, a toy-train enthusiast whom Russell Dixon plays as a twinkly troll. What binds these two together? It takes a while, but all will be revealed. The couples bounce off each other like charged particles, and if you think you know where the story’s going, you assuredly don’t.
Ayckbourn is as crack a director as he is a dab playwright, and the cast is top-notch—especially the heliotropic Hoskins, who starts out shadowy and subdued, only slowly finding her light.
(Time Out New York, 11 June 2016)
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