Ayckbourn’s Private Fears Reveal: Art of British Restraint

If you want to see British acting at its best, you owe it to yourself to catch the six brilliant actors in the New York premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s Private Fears in Public Places. I’ll gladly burn a few bridges and say they’re the best ensemble in town, English or American.

And where does that leave Liev Schreiber, Alan Alda and Co. in Glengarry Glen Ross? It leaves them acting up a storm on a different planet (and it isn’t a competition). Nothing could be more dissimilar than Mr. Mamet’s foul-mouthed lowlifes and Mr. Ayckbourn’s middle classes of England. Yet I think the unstarry, unknown cast of the Ayckbourn-who also directs-achieves a quiet miracle.

American actors are celebrated as the masters of naturalism, but they no longer own the copyright. Look at any British gangster film with Cockney thugs-Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast is the insane apex of the genre-and you’ll see their realistic actors are extraordinary. A generation and more ago, young British actors no longer worshipped at the shrine of Laurence Olivier. They’d never seen him. They worshipped Al Pacino. When it comes to the dear old middle classes of England, however, no one on earth can play them like the British.

This is because when God invented the middle class, he had only the British in mind. Other countries imitate them, or they pastiche them onstage in plays by Terrence Rattigan, say, or Coward and Maugham. They play them as arch and mannered, with rattling teacups. Even the British pastiche themselves (see any film set in Tuscany with the usual Dames). The singular achievement of the Ayckbourn troupe at the 59 East 59 Theaters is that they’re all such natural actors they don’t seem to be acting.

I was surprised by their effortless Englishness, even so. In my snobbery, I feared they would be closer to provincial English actors on tour. Most of the ensemble are stalwarts from Mr. Ayckbourn’s theater in the North Yorkshire seaside resort of Scarborough, and Scarborough doesn’t seem like the super league of theater capitals from where I sit on Mount Parnassus. It seems like every other British seaside resort-dated and windswept and miserable. I’ve never been there, however. When I lived in England as a child, we went to Blackpool, leaning into the wind and the rain pissing down as we headed forlornly for the Pleasure Beach. Still, serious theater didn’t exist in Blackpool, not like Scarborough.

Mr. Ayckbourn has been running the Stephen Joseph Theatre there since 1971, and the majority of his renowned plays began in the Scarborough theater and went on to the West End and the National Theatre. Private Fears is his 67th play, though he’s written 69. That’s a breeze compared to Lope de Vega, who wrote about 1,500 plays, and every one a laugh riot. But Mr. Ayckbourn’s actors know his work better than anyone. The Bard of British middle-class manners is in their blood.

The British acting style itself will always be underplayed, however. Emotional reticence is the national trait. You must sense what the traditionally reserved middle-class Englishman feels by what he doesn’t say. The title of Mr. Ayckbourn’s Private Fears in Public Places itself hints at the subdued desperation within its public personas.

Here’s mousy Charlotte, the born-again Christian and tortured sexual fantasist, with the middle-aged, homosexual barman, Ambrose, who lives with his mad, dying dad:

“Parents tend to make you … “, but Charlotte’s thought trails off in mid-sentence, as if a definitive statement would be rude, too forward. “Has your mother been departed long?” she inquires.

The word departed is, of course, typically middle-class genteel. For the most part, Mr. Ayckbourn’s characters are good-natured, and Ambrose is a good, coping person whose life has been crushed by some random act of fate, like the others.

“She died three years ago,” Ambrose says stoically, almost matter-of-factly, about the departed one. “My father-he left us when I was fifteen. And my mother she lived on here until she died. I came back and looked after her during her final months. My own relationship had only recently ended, so … she was … she had … it was quite difficult … (he appears to be on the verge of tears) … it was … sorry. Hard to talk about.”

Mr. Ayckbourn’s ear for the rhythms and verbal tics of the restrained and easily embarrassed English remains unimpaired. He always enjoyed solving technical problems and therefore invents them. The fun and perversity of his last outing here, House and Garden, was that it was two plays performed simultaneously by the same cast in adjoining theaters. Private Fears is less breathtaking. The lives of its six characters interlock seamlessly in 53 scenes in 110 minutes.

Technical virtuosity aside, Mr. Ayckbourn has often been called the English Chekhov. It’s like saying Chekhov is the Russian Ayckbourn. Something’s wrong with the picture. He isn’t a poet, though his comedies might be underpinned by unspoken yearning. Chekhov famously described his plays as comedies, which they famously aren’t. Private Fears is an affecting play that could easily burst into high comedy (and sometimes it’s giddily on the verge). But the dramatist has other things on his mind. The opening line of Private Fears is spoken by Nicola, a thirtysomething woman looking for a new apartment: “It’s rather small, isn’t it?” Within this small, modest wry comedy of English manners is a tragedy of solitude.

Nicola, with her piercing sense of upper-class entitlement, is engaged to Dan, an ex-army officer whose promising career has been ruined. She will end up afraid, her confidence evaporated. He possesses the dim, inherited arrogance of the privileged and gets drunk all day at the hotel bar tended by the sweet, privately grieving Ambrose. Poor Stewart is the timid real-estate agent who works with Charlotte, the secret porn fantasist. Dan meets Stewart’s spinsterish sister Imogen on a blind date, and she’ll be three sheets to the wind, too.

“No, no, no,” she tells him. “Listen …. You’re a beautiful man. And I don’t deserve you. And in a minute I keep imagining that a beautiful woman is going to walk in here and carry you away. Because I don’t deserve you. I really don’t.”

“Why on earth not?” he asks, and means it. He’s smitten. He stands a chance in life with her.

“Because I’m so boring. I’m a really boring person.”

“Whoever told you that?”

“I know, I know I am. I bore myself dreadfully sometimes. I send myself to sleep with boredom. You’ve no idea. I mean, compared to you-you’ve had such an exciting life. In the army and being wounded and things. What have I ever done?”

“Well, I’m not in the army now.”

“But you were …. “

Alan Ayckbourn’s middle-class England is one of intensely vulnerable people who never quite blossom or connect. They live in hope and damp defeat. They have been subverted by themselves or circumstance. But they soldier on, as the English do. Painful fear is confronted in private, the Englishman’s castle and soul. The rest is just pretend.

Our thanks to Mr. Ayckbourn’s wonderful actors: Melanie Gutteridge, Paul Kemp, Adrian McLoughlin, Alexandra Mathie, Sarah Moyle and Paul Thornley. Ms. Moyle and Mr. Thornley make the best stage drunks you could see. All have their moments-understated, touching and exactly right.