No Knowing: World Premiere Reviews

This page contains a selection of reviews from the world premiere production of Alan Ayckbourn's No Knowing at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in 2016. All reviews are the copyright of the respective publication and / or author.

Alan Ayckbourn serves up a tart Christmas trifle (by Claire Allfree)
Fifty years into his career, Alan Ayckbourn, the poet of suburban despair, is still peeking behind the net curtains to reveal the treachery beneath. Wives driven mad by boredom and neglect, husbands turned cruel through laziness and indifference - these are human types that the 77-year-old consistently puts on stage to dazzling effect.
The perimeters of adultery may have changed - be it a virtual affair online or a same sex one with a neighbour - but Ayckbourn knows better than any other playwright how often the emotional circumstances remain the same.
No Knowing is best dubbed play number 80 and a half: it's not being billed as a full length piece by Stephen Joseph, Ayckbourn's spiritual home, since it's barely 75 minutes long. But at half strength or not, he is up to his usual temporal tricks in this supremely funny comedy, which offers two versions of a day just before Christmas in the marriage of Elspeth and Arthur, some months before they celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary. In one, she has an affair. In the other, he does.
We are in an instantly recognisable Ayckbourn battleground here. Arthur and Elspeth sit, as they have presumably done for every night of their 40-year marriage, at opposite ends of a scrubbed pine table. The monotony is deafening. There is the scrape of cutlery on china. A desultory remark is made about the quality of the meat
Tellingly, Elspeth has cooked the meal and is the one to clear it up. Arthur, meanwhile, is off to spend yet another evening on the internet in his shed. Then the doorbell rings and the couple's grown up son Nigel wants a private word with dad. In the second half, it's a similar set up, but now daughter Alison is at the door, wanting a quick chat with mum.
The cleverness of this eloquently acted piece, which Ayckbourn also directs, is that rather than offer a simple either/or scenario, it shows how a marriage can evolve along two very different paths.
In version one, Jacqueline King's lemon tart Elspeth resembles a sleek, restless greyhound - an entirely different species to Russell Dixon's moth-eaten Arthur, mouldering away in his matching beige cardigan and socks. She is reckless and frustrated by her husband’s mundanity.
Meanwhile, he mutters bleakly about how you can't go wrong with Amazon tokens for Christmas and how unnatural he finds same-sex relationships. His response to his son's revelation is cold, ugly denial.
In version two, we see a softer, more indulgent Elspeth on display who affectionately defends her husband's insistence on lighting up Rudolph on the roof each Christmas and whose response to Alison's news of Arthur’s affair is to suggest both she and Arthur might be at fault.
No Knowing would have been sharper and darker had Ayckbourn run it without an interval and switched his two scenarios around so that you end with greyhound Elspeth making a bid for freedom. But this is still a very witty play and a very true one. Even a Christmas trifle from Ayckbourn is tangier than many a turkey with trimmings from elsewhere.
(Daily Telegraph, 6 December 2016)

Alan Ayckbourn presents more gift-wrapped explosives (by Alfred Hickling)
It’s hardly a coincidence that some of Alan Ayckbourn’s most enduring plays have been set at Christmas.
Absurd Person Singular, Joking Apart and Season’s Greetings all suggested that the pressure on the average family to show goodwill towards one another for a couple of days each year is a couple of days longer than most average families can withstand. More recently, Life and Beth was a Christmas ghost story about a widow’s attempt to celebrate the festive season without her husband coming back to haunt her.
Ayckbourn has acknowledged that the trick behind his festive scenarios is quite simple: “Give them a land mine, but make sure you wrap it up in a bit of tinsel.” Here he delivers a pair of gift-wrapped explosives in the form of two short, symmetrical one-act pieces entitled
Knowing Her and Knowing Him. Both halves commence with a gathering in honour of Arthur and Elspeth, who are celebrating 40 years of marriage. They then wind back in time to a previous Christmas, blighted by bombshells pertaining to their secret lives.
It’s clear that since their children left home, Arthur and Elspeth have been largely ignoring each other. He spends hours surfing the internet in his shed, while she seems eager to leave the house at every opportunity for drinks with her friend Janice. Tongues have begun wagging in the neighbourhood that these two 60-year-old married women have been spotted canoodling at the bus stop. It gradually becomes apparent that, since taking possession of his son’s old laptop, Arthur has inherited his online dating profile as well.
The two parts feel structurally a little stiff, reminiscent of the venerable format of the Mr and Mrs game show, in which each partner is sent off while the other is grilled about how much they really know. But it enables Ayckbourn to explore his key concept of marriage as a flawed arrangement in which people attempt to get to know the strangers they have pledged to spend their lives with. Unable to comprehend that his wife could be curious about a same-sex relationship, Arthur protests that she has always been an open book to him. “But maybe you haven’t actually picked her up and read her in a while,” his son responds.
Russell Dixon and Jacqueline King turn in stoic performances as a couple whose relationship has fallen into a deadly slough of silent meals and tactful evasion. As their grownup children, Bill Champion and Laura Matthews make an effective pair of marriage-guidance counsellors while dropping hints that their own relationships are far from untroubled. But, unusually for Ayckbourn, it ends on a note of reconciliation and cautious optimism. These twin playlets are mere stocking-fillers compared with Ayckbourn’s more substantial Christmas fare, but quite a surprise in their relative absence of humbug nonetheless.
(The Guardian, 8 December 2016)

No Knowing (By Sam Marlowe)
There’s a moment in Alan Ayckbourn’s new Christmas comedy when it looks as if he may have hidden a hand grenade in the pudding - when the safe, cosy, dull routine of middle-class domesticity appears set to explode in spectacular fashion. That never quite happens, which, like pulling a cracker without a bang, leaves you feeling slightly deflated. Yet in 80 fleet minutes, the play still offers a shrewd dissection of the comforts and constrictions of marriage, as well as pondering the ultimate unknowability of the inner life of others - even those with whom we are most intimate.
The playwright, who also directs, is up to his old structural tricks, toying with flashbacks and mirroring devices. We begin at a summer party celebrating the 40th wedding anniversary of Arthur (Russell Dixon) and Elspeth (Jacqueline King), before leaping back to December the previous year. In the second act the pattern is repeated, only this time, the second scene takes place a week closer to Christmas. In parallel confrontations with their son and daughter, it emerges that the couple are keeping potentially devastating secrets. Suddenly everything is called into question.
Ayckbourn conjures the mood of muted suburban discontent with characteristic skill: the mundanity, the disappointments, the tendernesses and consolations. King’s Elspeth gives a speech at the party that, with its pitiful advice about how to keep a husband interested, seeps loneliness. Dixon’s Arthur is - apparently - an unimaginative man who does all his exploring on the internet, and whose idea of an inspired Christmas gift for his wife is “tokens and toiletries”. Their conversation is hilariously stultifying, and in its quiet way, desperately sad. And the revelations, when they come, are deliciously unexpected.
There is, admittedly, a slightly musty whiff about it all, from Ayckbourn’s pedestrian staging to his use of dated slang - when did you last hear anyone called “a wally”? And the cautiously optimistic ending is rather too quickly and conveniently contrived. Yet this is a clever little festive entertainment.
(The Times, 12 December 2016)

No Knowing (by Viv Hardwick)
Here's a little Christmas present from Alan Ayckbourn. It's not big and shiny and glittery, and doesn't shout from the rooftops, but as you'd expect from the prolific Mr Ayckbourn this is a little gem in a Christmas season where wit and drama are rejected in favour of cross-dressing, thigh-slapping and over-the-top histrionics.
Ayckbourn's play – he's now authored 80-plus of them – is playful and knowing and has added depth for anyone married 40-odd years who will recognise the dilemmas of a long-running marriage. Arthur and Elspeth are celebrating four decades of wedded bliss although each has a secret (which I won't spoil the fun by revealing) that sheds a different light on their relationship.
The two acts – or "a comedy of two halves" as the publicity has it – last a relatively brief, but emotionally packed 35 minutes as the masterful Sir Alan offers a portrait of a marriage not exactly on the rocks but reaching a few bumpy patches.
The first act belongs to Arthur as son Nigel reveals his mother's secret life, while the second act has Elspeth learning about her husband's extra-marital affair. Both revelations are unexpected and some may regret that Ayckbourn doesn't indulge in a third act to explore further the aftermath of these marital bombshells. The setting may be Christmas, but the festive spirit is stretched to breaking point.
Ayckbourn "old hands" Jacqueline King and Russell Dixon, along with Laura Matthews (daughter Alison) and Bill Champion (son Nigel) offer immaculate performances as the family quartet.
(Northern Echo, 9 December 2016)

No Knowing (by Sue Wilkinson)
There is a little gift for fans of Alan Ayckbourn waiting to be unwrapped at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough.
No Knowing is not the biggest of presents – it’s 90-minutes long and that includes the interval. But big does not always been best – rather good things come in small packages. There are many buttons and gizmos on this gift that keeps the audience interested and cheering long after the lights have gone up. Marriage, secrets, relationships between parents and their children – and Christmas.
No Knowing opens at a party to celebrate the 40th wedding anniversary of Arthur and Elspeth – she makes a speech on the nature of marriage for a woman. Quick change and the couple are sitting at the kitchen table eating tea – with nothing to say to each other. He intends to disappear into his shed for a few hours on the computer and she is heading off to a wine bar with a friend.
Then their son arrives with a secret about his mum to impart to his dad. I will not spoil the surprise by telling you what that secret is. The second half opens with Arthur giving a speech at the party – about how he knows his wife better than anyone (and we now know the irony of the speech) and love and marriage. Quick change and the couple are, again, sitting at the kitchen table eating tea with nothing to say to each other. This time enter the daughter with a secret about her dad to impart to her mum. It is simple in device and construction but complicated in theme and emotion.
The dialogue is dazzlingly good and the observations of marriage and family relationships by turns heartbreakingly and side-splittingly true.
No Knowing stars Russell Dixon and Jacqueline King as Arthur and Elspeth, with Bill Champion and Laura Matthews as their son and daughter, Nigel and Alison. The performances are brilliant all round. This is a lovely little present, gift wrapped in quality paper and tied up neatly in a shiny bow.
(The Scarborough News, 8 December 2016)

All reviews are copyright of the respective publication.