Virtual Reality: World Premiere Reviews


Artificial Intelligence (by Michael Billington)
"Alan Ayckbourn has always been obsessed by machines. In
Henceforward... he created an avant-garde composer living in a hi-tech bunker and striving to create the sound of love without understanding it. In Comic Potential he posits a future in which soaps are acted by programmed androids. And now in Virtual Reality; which has just opened at Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre before going on a national tour, he gives us a hero who is hopeless at life but capable of designing virtual exteriors complete with seemingly real people.
The play, which I liked very much, brings out two qualities little noticed in Ayckbourn: ambivalence and melancholy. If the play were simply a Luddite attack on an over mechanised society, it would be wanly predictable: the trick is that the hero, Alex Huby spends his life doing exactly what playwrights do, which is to create artificial worlds indistinguishable from reality. But the play also reminds us that in the theatre, from Shakespeare to Moliere and Chekhov, there is no true comedy without sadness. As Peter Hall wrote to Ayckbourn, at the time of his 60th birthday, "without the persistent strain of melancholy you might be thought just a brilliant boulevard dramatist."
The striking thing about
Virtual Reality - Ayckbourn's 56th play - is that it contains no great farcical set-pieces. He is content to let the comedy take its course while observing life with a wistful sadness. Indeed his hero, Alex, is almost Russian in his detached neutrality. While designing virtual landscapes he seems only marginally concerned to his TV presenter wife, who spends much of her life on a hands-free mobile phone, and to his closeted, gadget-freak son. When he meets an emotionally fraught young actress, who is doing casual work as the waitress from hell, he drifts into an affair with her almost because it would be impolite not to. In so doing, he brings a network of relationships crashing down like a house of cards.
In one sense, Alex is simply the latest in a long line of Ayckbourn heroes who cause mayhem through their moral inertia. Colin, the recently bereaved protagonist of
Absent Friends, destroys a whole group of sympathetic chums with his cheerfully vacuous smile. Guy, who joins the local amateur operatic society in A Chorus of Disapproval, is the innocent nonentity who wreaks social and sexual havoc by his simple inability to say no. But Alex is somewhat different in that he sees his own flaws as symptoms of a wider malaise. He tells his half-listening wife: "We rely on each other for our identity these days, don't we? To tell us what our place is in the world, as it were. Most of us, we don't have a church, we don't have a God, we don't even have a clearly defined code of ethics. Let's face it, we have no real sense of self at all."
This seems to me Ayckbourn's real theme: not just the emotional isolation induced by the new technology but the problems of living in a moral vacuum. Without a bedrock of belief, religious or political, and with family life under increasing strain, who are we and how on earth do we learn how to live? Because Ayckbourn's plays are set in middle-class worlds, he is often dumbly treated as if he were a conventional writer. In fact, the questions he poses are precisely those that have resounded through all the intelligent new writing of the past decade. Allowing for differences of generational perspective and dramatic means, Ayckbourn is at one with David Hare, Patrick Marber, Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill in using theatre as a form of inquiry into how you inhabit a moral void. He is not the Grand Old Man of Scarborough: he is as restlessly inquisitive as any dramatist of the new generation.
If there is a flaw in the play it is that Alex's negligent adultery leads too easily to the unravelling of all the dependent relationships: it is treated as a given rather than as something to be worked through. But the play's success lies in Ayckbourn's theatrical ability to flesh out his key idea about the dangerous seductiveness of new technology. The play hinges on Alex's ability to create virtual exterior views: literally windows on to another world. And here, in Roger Glossop's , design, we see a simulated garden complete with a programmed gardener, wonderfully played by Mike Raffone. Like all good dramatists, Ayckbourn shows rather than tells and makes it clear why one might want to retreat into a virtual world.
Ayckbourn's own production will acquire greater smoothness during the run. It is already very well acted by Andrew Havill as the designer with the disintegrating self, Susie Blake as a dipso literary agent, Daisy Beaumont as the squalor-loving actress and especially by Dale Rapley as an earnest young film director. But, in the end, the play goes far beyond the idea that technology intensifies emotional isolation. Ayckbourn has written a dystopian comedy suggesting that our sense of identity is disappearing along with society's moral frame work. He may not have the solution but he has identified the question that dominates modern drama and that links him to what the Germans graphically call the "blood-and-sperm" generation."
(The Guardian, 12 February 2000)

Virtual Reality
"The customary injunction to switch off all mobile phones and pagers is conspicuous by its absence at the start of Alan Ayckbourn's production of his new play, Virtual Reality. This misses a trick, for the ensuing black comedy - set "around about now" - ushers us into a world where an announcement of that kind would have about as much chance of success as a plea for contemplative communal calm on the floor of the Stock Exchange. The ways in which people get cut off from each other and from their own inner selves has always been an Ayckbourn speciality. In Virtual Reality, the twist is how technology has now made such a state of collective estrangement a socially acceptable, round-the-clock condition.
Penny (Celia Nelson), the hero's TV anchor-person wife, would evidently feel naked without some device plugged into her ear. Arriving late for her spouse, Alex's, birthday treat in a restaurant, she effusively embraces the guests and gives every appearance of blessing the occasion with her undivided attention. In fact, she is deep in discussion with her producer on a hands-free mobile. People these days can look as if they are with you, when they are actually miles away. There is a running joke (which becomes a bit contrived) that all of Alex's major pronouncements to Penny - such as his anguishing over whether to embark on an affair with a young actress, Cassie (Daisy Beaumont) - fall not so much on deaf ears, as on ears that are otherwise engaged. And their off-stage son is no consolation, lost to cyber-sex on his PC.
Alex (appealingly played by Andrew Havill) is a software designer who has made a killing with his "Viewdow", a virtual vista which, installed in however improbable a setting, gives the purchaser the illusion of having a substantial garden and a faithful Scottish gardener, McGregor (Mike Raffone).
Presented in an amusingly low-tech way behind a set of screens on Roger Glossop's neat set, this Technicolor vision of illusory content undergoes some farcical adjustments when a pirate version infiltrates the market, sending slow, obedient McGregor into camply capering Hibernian overdrive. There's also a well-orchestrated nightmare sequence in which our trusty gardener, now more Mellors than McGregor, appears to have cuckolded Alex.
Oscar Wilde said that one should live up to one's china. Ousted by wife and mistress, Alex ends up aspiring to the condition of his software. The final stage picture, as he takes the place of the absconded McGregor among the red virtual roses, is meant to offer a bleak symbol of deluded happiness.
The big snag with
Virtual Reality, though, is that the outer world in the play feels as artificial and cut-off as existence in the Viewdow. The desire to create intricate patterns takes priority over achieving plausibility. On several occasions, for example, Alex and Cassie fail to have the wild sex they'd planned. Fatigue, mundane indisposition etc keep intervening.
But for that joke to work, we required to believe that there are attractive, aspiring actresses in London whom you can make (a) horny as hell and (b) violently ill on less than half a bottle of wine. I fear that to meet such desirable creatures, you really would have to enter virtual reality."
(The Independent, 9 February 2000)

Virtual Reality (by Benedict Nightingale)
"Alan Ayckbourn's latest is much concerned with the problem of identity or, dare I say, Problem of Identity. His middle-aged protagonist, a computer designer called Alex, talks mournfully about being defined by other people's views of him. The 21-year-old for whom he leaves his wife is an actress feverishly in search of a role to suit her dubious talents. And Alex's prime creation is a virtual gardener called McGregor. Put him in an alcove or window, and he'll dig, potter and prune in his virtual garden, looking like a grinning Harpo in a woolly hat.
I have criticised Ayckbourn's recent comedies for getting lighter and less sombre. The opposite is true of
Virtual Reality. Though it has its funny moments, as when McGregor runs goofily amok amid his fake roses, it deals seriously not only with the male menopause and the feelings of emptiness accompanying it but with personal relationships and people's habits of dependency. So it seems grudging to complain that the play doesn't always seem lived-out or lived-through.
That's not the fault of Andrew Havill, who brings a quiet solidity along with an interesting inwardness to Alex. You can see why people rely on him more than they should. His birthday dinner at the play's beginning is symptomatic. His wife (Celia Nelson), a successful television presenter permanently prattling to her producer on her mobile, has yet to collect the silverware she is giving him, so hands him the engravers' ticket instead. She clearly takes him for granted.
So do his host (Richard Derrington), who is his oldest friend and his business partner, and his host's literary-agent wife (Susie Blake). Indeed, the latter gets boozily smug and boorish, assuring him how much she and her husband owe him, how important he is to them. By the time Alex has delivered his homily about having no sense of self, and discovered that their waitress is a resting actress in need of a lift, we are pretty sure that everyone's complacency will be shattered.
That is the business of the second, less satisfying half.
Alex's wife proves more vulnerable than she seems; his friends blame him for the collapse of their marriage; his affair with Daisy Beaumont's Cassie runs into understandable trouble when he starts replacing her curtains and objecting to the director who wants to use her in an avant-garde film about, well, the complexity of identity.
Actually, I objected to this chap, too; but mainly because he was an awful caricature of go-getting pretension.
Ayckbourn's own production is notably well acted and whizzes enjoyably between locations, restaurant to television studio to dowdy Tooting flat; yet the human progression sometimes seems pre-planned, pre-packaged and sketchy. I am an Ayckbourn fan, but this time he left me feeling that he cannot match Simon Gray when it comes to writing about either tipsy literary agents or the subtle treacheries of sex.
The paradoxical problem with
Virtual Reality, I fear, is that it isn't quite real enough."
(The Times, 9 February 2000)

Autopilot Ayckbourn Creates A Three Dimensional, Computer Generated Stinker (by Charles Spencer)
"'I yield to few in my admiration of Sir Alan Ayckbourn and he has been on terrific form recently.
Comic Potential, with an award winning performance from Janie Dee as a sexy android, is still running in the West End, and this summer sees the arrival of his ingenious double drama, House and Garden, at the National, with the same company performing two different plays in two different auditoria at the same time.
Every so often, though, Ayckbourn writes a play so turgid, so stale, so irredeemably second-rate, that you can't believe he has written it.
Virtual Reality is one of them.
This is a bog-standard midlife-crisis play in which a 45-year-old software designer becomes obsessed with 21 year-old actress and walks out on his wife and son. This unexpected turn of events also precipitates the collapse of the marriage of his best friend. The whole sad farrago is accompanied by quasi-philosophical dialogue about the nature of identity and predictable jokes about mobile phones and computers.
Throughout the play, you feel that Ayckbourn's heart isn't in it, that he is writing on automatic pilot. There is no depth, still less compassion, in the characterisation; the gags are gormless, the consideration of modern technology banal. The price of Ayckbourn's amazing productivity is the occasional dud, but someone should surely have advised him that this script wasn't up to scratch.
Our scrawny, woefully unsexy, stubbornly unsympathetic hero, Alex Huby (Andrew Havill), designs "viewdows", fake windows offering a 3D virtual view of a computer-generated gardener tending his camellias (one pities the poor actor lumbered with playing this "virtual part"). But the computer program goes wrong and the gardener begins to behave erratically - to drearily unrewarding comic returns.
I think that Ayckbourn is suggesting that Alex himself is behaving just as erratically when he goes off with the actress, who gets improbably sloshed on two glasses of wine and, in the show's only really entertaining scene, starts loudly boasting in a crowded restaurant about the spectacular nature of her legs and breasts.
There is something almost insultingly perfunctory about the portrayal of some of the characters - Alex's cold, grotesquely ambitious television-presenter wife (Celia Nelson), for instance, and an alcoholic literary agent whom even the excellent Susie Blake can't turn into anything more than an off-the-shelf stage lush. And with the entrance of a preposterously pretentious film director with a funny foreign accent, disappointment begins to yield to despair.
The discussion of human identity - in the absence of God and an ethical code, are we anything more than reflections of the people we know? - is the kind of stuff that troubles students late at night. Worse still, there is a fatal absence of sexual spark between the adulterous lovers, though I found myself warming to Daisy Beaumont as the young actress. She has a warmth and vitality about her that the rest of Ayckbourn's production dismally lacks.
It's only fair to point out that saw the show at the final preview and it may become sharper during the course of the run. Nevertheless, by Ayckbourn's own high standards,
Virtual Reality looks alarmingly like a veritable flop."
(Daily Telegraph, 10 February 2000)

Virtual Reality (by Dave Windass)
"Alan Ayckbourn makes a surprise appearance in his latest play - virtually speaking, that is. His signed photograph hangs in a restaurant set at the Stephen Joseph's McCarthy Theatre.
Witty mise en scene aside, the playwright adheres to his pet subjects of love, relationships, communication breakdowns and the human condition. In his most socially relevant piece since Man of the Moment, he comments on the chaotic, selfish pace of the 21st century and also indulges in existential debate, questioning the nature of individuality.
The play is set in the near future, an age of hands-free communication. Alex Huby (Andrew Havill) finds it increasingly difficult to get in touch with anyone - especially his wife Penny (Celia Nelson), who is either too busy presenting tabloid television show Who, What, Where or chatting on her mobile phone.
He commences an affair with young, aspiring actress Cassie (Daisy Beaumont), an action that affects the lives of everyone around him. It does not work out, and makes Alex realise that he does not much care for reality.
It is a strong cast - Susie Blake (Penny) is a splendid drunk, and Richard Derrington (Barney) an all too believable weasel of a man. Beaumont does a wonderful job of playing a bad actress really well - anyone who has failed an audition will find nothing to take heart from here.
And poor Mike Raffone (McGregor) has to suffer being Ayckbourn's latest piece of faulty technology inside the virtual window of the future, the Viewdo [sic].
Roger Glossop's end-stage set is an ingenious mix of rotating components which allows the simultaneous collapse of characters' lives."
(The Stage, 17 February 2000)

Virtual Reality (by Charles Hutchinson)
"New millennium, new Ayckbourn? No, because relationships are still at the core of his comedies. Yes, because his vision of the immediate future - or around about now, round and about London as he specifies in the programme - has turned bleaker still and his focus has switched from middle-class suburban to high-flying urban.
His 56th play is a cautionary tale for the way we live our pressure-cooker lives at the beginning of the 21st century, rooted like
Henceforward... and Comic Potential in bridging the gap between man and machine.
Except that, in
Virtual Reality, the gap is widening with every stride of the march of the communications revolution.
Virtual Reality is set in an age of "instant, easy-access, hands-free communication", the age where it's good to talk, seemingly as long as it's on the mobile phone or the tiny handset.
Alex Huby (Andrew Havill) deals in virtual reality, creating simulations of authentic rural scenes (most notably, McGregor, the gardener) to sell to old people's homes and businesses as the latest designer toy. Trouble is, high-flying Alex is increasingly living in virtual reality, feeling "out of it", distant and excluded as he explains at his 45th birthday party in a long, sore thumb of a monologue about identity and individuality.
As ever, his wife, sharp-suited TV presenter Penny Porter (Celia Nelson), isn't listening; instead she's on the handset to her producer.
Alex, like Lester Burnham in
American Beauty, is experiencing a mid-life crisis. He hardly sees his wife; he doesn't want to see his teenage son; and his emotions have been frozen by the hurly-burly demands of modern life. He no longer knows who he is, being defined, like every one of the London swingers around him, by other people's opinion. People like his quiet, subservient hi-tech partner Barney Russell (Richard Derrington) and Barney's wild wife, book editor Beth Hall (Susie Blake), a libidinous lush. They in turn are defined by his thoughts about them. Hence this world of virtual reality, a structure as fragile as a house of cards.
Remove one card, or in this case, add another and the structure falls. The new addition is young actress Cassie (Daisy Beaumont), the hopeless waitress at Alex's party They talk, they connect, and soon he has moved into her messy Tooting flat. Watch the house of cards duly collapse.
Played out on Roger Glossop's hi-tech set, with McGregor's virtual reality garden at the centre, Ayckbourn's production is darkly comic, full of foreboding and concern at the turn for the worse that man's alliance with science is taking.
As ever, blessed with searching performances by Havill and the cavalier Blake in particular, Ayckbourn articulates the sense of loss, the crisis of confidence, with perspicacity and worldly wit."
(Yorkshire Evening Press, 9 February 2000)

Virtual Reality (by Lynda Murdin)
"Does this intriguing new comedy by Alan Ayckbourn really exist or is it just in our imaginations?
Perhaps when an audience gathers to watch it, they experience some form of communal thought process that stirs up memories of his previous plays and projects them into this latest work.
For there is a jigsaw of many of the playwright's recognisable early hallmarks in
Virtual Reality, not least among them a male mid-life crisis and people's inability to communicate with the ones they love the most - despite a plethora of electronic methods.
But Ayckbourn, who also directs this premiere, has actually gone back to the future, deftly recycling familiar themes to launch the new.
The result can only be called real virtuosity.
Of course,
Virtual Reality, which returns to the SJT's smaller McCarthy auditorium for the summer following a tour that includes Huddersfield and Harrogate, does exist. But not entirely as a comedy. Like a magical trick with mirrors, this play seems to be one thing, while, in fact, it is another: it is not light, but dark.
It contains some very amusing moments but the humour is frequently rooted in people's psychological pain. Making audiences laugh when they could cry is another Ayckbourn hallmark, but here he takes the technique back to the extremes of his "dark period", producing a bleaker and deeper play than his recent output -
Comic Potential, now running in London's West End and last year's two-in-one House & Garden, soon to be presented at the Royal National Theatre.
For not only do the main characters in
Virtual Reality - two married couples and a young mistress - suffer emotional damage as their relationships collapse, they do so against a philosophical questioning about the nature of existence itself.
Are we - and our relationships - merely the result of other people's perceptions? These are deep waters touching on Descartes and his ilk and their theories about the modern isolated individual: Ayckbourn, splendidly served by the seven-strong cast, washes over them lightly."
(Yorkshire Post, 10 February 2000)

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