A nervous man tries his best to count the curious variety of padded stools, folding chairs, and ottoman seats circled around him; and he simply cannot seem to come up with the required ten. He is about once again to host the Pendon Writer’s Circle in the modest home of him and his mother, a sick woman who keeps pounding loudly with a stick from her upstairs bedroom for attention. Only when his Smithfield’s shop assistant, Ilsa, arrives on her son’s motorbike can she finally and quickly assess that he is missing one chair and then hurry to remedy what has become a major predicament for the rather fastidious Arnold Hassock (for whom she has adoring eyes). Now he is finally ready to greet the group of would-be writers for their monthly meeting where each hopes to be inspired to create the next great literary offering to the world.
In his 2005 play, Improbable Fiction, Alan Ayckbourn introduces us to a quirky, bordering-on-bizarre group of characters who come from all works of life looking to be an author of one type or another from sci-fi to historical romances. In an entertaining production by Edinburgh Theatre Arts, David McCallum directs this gathered clan with tongue fully in cheek and yet with clear, heartfelt empathy for what it takes to imagine a story others might somehow want to read. The host himself, a sometimes-stuttering but always happily blissful Arnold, claims he has no creative spark since he only writes instruction manuals. However, it is his eventually run-amok imagination that will give Mr. McCallum full license to orchestrate in the second half series of sometimes goofy and manic, but in the end always hilarious scenes that bring to full life the stories the now-gathering would-be writers are attempting to tell.
But first we meet in the first act each of the writers and listen to their individual struggles to put words (or in one cast, lyrics) to paper while also witnessing some of their intra-group rivalries, snips, and outright battles. Jess, a lesbian farmer out to create a historical romance, is not quite yet a writer since no words have ever been written (“My book’s perfect inside of me, but as soon as I start writing … it’s ruined”). As Jess, the eyes-to-the-ground Mags McPherson looks half the time like she will cry any minute and the other half like she will snip the head off Grace (Kerry Trewern), a housewife who’s so concerned about the “danger we can over-write”) that she too has no words yet to go with her rather sophomoric drawings for her children’s book about “Doblin the Goblin” and his friend, “Sid the Squirrel.” Grace is so concerned about her former schoolteacher’s reaction, the retired Brevis Winterton, that when the rotund, rather pompous, and altogether bombastic in volume and tone biker arrives, she quickly hides all the wordless mock-ups she is in the process of sharing (but not before he can snidely remark he always knew she would never amount to anything).
John McLinden is the bomb-throwing Bevis, sometimes over-doing his constantly loud outbursts but still funny as the composer of a musical adaptation of Pilgrim’s Progress who can only seem to create half songs, filling in the rest of the lyrics with “la-la’s” and “etc., etc.” He saves his most vitriolic venom for the Star-Trek-dressed Clem Pepp, a city council worker played by Colin McPherson. Clem can barely speak or look up between eating his sandwich and crisps except when he finally gets to share his much-convoluted next chapter of a science fiction story about aliens invading city government — a storyline he somehow believes is not really fiction. But even Bevis must admire with everyone else journalist Vivvi Dickins (Kirsty Doull) who is on her sixth crime novel about Detective Jim Ratchet; and though none is published and are “lying there cluttering up my bedroom,” the entire group is clearly caught up in all the characters and envy the prolific production of Vivvi.
Derek Marshall is excellent as the amiable Arnold Hassock and is the only character who will stay as his true, non-assuming self throughout the two acts. All others will transform at the sound of mysterious thunder (produced as part of an excellent sound design by the play’s director), particularly mysterious since it is Christmas time in Britain. Key in his wild set of mixed-up stories come to life in the second act is his co-worker, Ilsa; and in that role, Lisa Moffat comes comes close time and again to stealing the entire show. With a face that molds into shapes and expressions galore from tight, pursed lips to wide-eyed elongations of wonder, Ilsa is a character difficult not to draw full focus of audience attention each time she is on the stage.
With Alan Ayckbourn’s two-play world premiere (The Divide, Parts 1 and 2) being a prominent offering in this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, Edinburgh Theatre Arts has made a particularly wise and fun choice in featuring his light-hearted (if not also shallow and silly) play, Improbable Fiction.
Rating: 3 E
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