Comic Potential: World Premiere Reviews

This page contains a selection of reviews from the world premiere production of Alan Ayckbourn's Comic Potential at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in 1996. All reviews are the copyright of the respective publication and / or author. Extracts from reviews of the original London production can be found here.

Comic Potential (by Tim Richardson)
"It is a nightmare vision for an actor: a world, not more than 50 years into the future, in which robot 'actoids' have entirely supplanted humans in soap operas. Has hard-bitten cynicism finally come to Alan Ayckbourn, now well past his half-century in play-writing terms?
The actors in the audience can soon breathe a collective sigh of relief, because the central character of
Comic Potential is a comely female actoid, JC 31333, or Jacie Triplethree as she is soon christened, who sets herself apart from her fellow robots by displaying a certain independence of mind and, crucially, a sense of humour. These virtues reinvigorate Chance Tate, a crabby, embittered old comedy-film director fallen on hard times, who finds himself directing risible actoid hospital soaps. The implication is that, however domineering the director, it is the creative, intuitively emotional or comic spark of the actors which will really bring the drama to life.
Television of the future is the setting for
Comic Potential, but its theme is nothing less than the human condition. We used to wonder what set us apart from the animals; now we might muse on the potential differences between humans and robots in the not-too distant future. Ayckbourn's latest is really an updated Pygmalion, with Jacie the robot as Eliza and Adam Trainsmith, an idealistic young scriptwriter who falls for her, the Higgins of the piece. Rather than aspiring to join the elite of society, however, Jacie simply wants to learn how to be part of the human race.
It is an entertaining supposition, not least in a Hollywood, 'I Married an Android' romantic comedy kind of way. Janie Dee steals the show with a bravura performance as the beguiling android. The convincing robotic manner never falters, a testament to the power of actor and director working in harmony.
The denouement, again reminiscent of
Pygmalion, has serious implications, however: an emotionally confused Jacie, disillusioned with Adam's patronising view of her and the way he is charmed by her childlike ways (a problem experienced not only by female robots), decides to have herself melted down rather than suffer any longer the confusion which comes with emotion. But she is pulled back from the brink by her love for Adam, a love founded in a shared sense of comedy.
This liberating, redeeming quality of humour was suggested by Samuel Beckett as an escape from a human universe that is unremittingly cruel; for Ayckbourn it provides the way into a human universe which has as much joy as pain to offer. On a rainy Wednesday night in Scarborough, having just enjoyed a first-class comedy, I was more inclined to concur with the latter point of view."
(Country Life, 30 July 1998)

Ayckbourn's Robotic Riot (by Robert Gore-Langton)
"How does Alan Ayckbourn do it? Most playwrights manage just a couple of good plays before they're washed up. Ayckbourn is on his 54th play - yes, his 54th - and he's still got a mass of fresh ideas in the bank.
This latest is a comic love story set in the future and starring a female android. Some may regret that Ayckbourn's bleakness has leached out of his work lately, but if this new play veers into occasional cosiness, it's still as fresh and as boltingly funny as anything he's written.
The basic premise is that, in the future, TV soap operas will have android actors (don't they already?) controlled by a corporate drama factories. In this case "actoids" are being directed by a manic director for a ratings-obsessed department headed up by an executive bitch from a sinister corporation.
A young man (played by the excellent Bill Champion*) wants a bash at writing a original comedy. He discovers that one actoid - a typecast blonde nurse - has an original spark. She suddenly starts learning about comedy - and about love. The two elope.
The play is an essay in the science of laughter, with pratfalls, custard pies and double-takes. Above all, it gives the delicious Janie Dee a chance to play a love-struck blonde android programmed to talk in prime-time clichés and dance like a mechanised dervish.
There's a sense of spiritual awakening as the young writer teaches his beloved actoid to read from the Bible, an exquisite moment that sends this futuristic farce into an unexpected poetic dimension. It's a joy to watch a succession of brilliantly engineered and funny scenes - directed by the author - in which Janie Dee's robotic performance repeatedly brings the house down.
A quality event - and further proof that the Scarborough mastermind hasn't lost his touch."
(Daily Express, 6 June 1998)

* The role in question was actually played by Nicholas Haverson

Comic Potential
"The highlight was the latest Ayckbourn. Even from such a restless creative spirit, Comic Potential is a startlingly daring work. Set in the near future, it is a cross between Pygmalion and Blade Runner. The success this unlikely hybrid is largely due to a fizzy young actress called Janie Dee. In a tricky lead role as an android, she held the stolid Scarborough audience in the palm of her hand for almost three hours. it didn't hurt, of course, that she has the looks of a mischievous angel."
(The Independent, 12 September 1998)

Ayckbourn And The Paranoid Androids (by Michael Billington)
"We laugh," wrote Bergson, "every time a person gives the impression of being a thing." So why not when a machine behaves like a person? It's an idea Alan Ayckbourn explored in 1987 in his bleak dystopian comedy,
Henceforward.... But he takes it even further in his 53rd* and latest play, Comic Potential: it's overlong and over-stuffed with ideas but it mixes futurism and feminism in uniquely Ayckbournian style and boasts a mesmerising performance by Janie Dee.
Ayckbourn starts with an intriguing premise: a future in which comedy is dead, technology has completely taken over and daytime TV soaps are filled with programmable, android performers. Into the nightmare world of a regional TV station, where a one time comic legend is directing these robotic actoids, steps an aspiring young writer, Adam Trainsmith. He is in awe both of the director and of the Hollywood comic tradition; and, when he detects a sudden spark of humour in a female actoid, he starts to fall in love with her.
Already it is clear - and this is only the half of it - that Ayckbourn is writing several plays at once. For a start there is a satire on the world of television: a place where actors are androids, where original ideas go through a Kafkaesque development process and where accountants sinisterly rule. He creates a memorable villain in the regional TV boss played by Jacqueline King as a mixture of Cruella de Ville, Lucretia Borgia and Birt in skirts.
But this is also a play about the death of comedy. It is almost as if Ayckbourn himself, fearful of the new sobriety, is transmitting his distilled comic wisdom while there is still time.
The third play on offer is a primal love story. This is much the weirdest and most successful of the interlocking ideas, in that it taps into Ayckbourn's instinctive feminism and gift for farce. Some might jib at the word feminist: after all, Adam humanises the android, known as Jacie Triplethree, and teaches her to read with the help of Genesis. But she not only turns into a rebellious Eve; she is also far wittier, stronger and more resourceful than her patriarchal instructor.
It is the mythical love-story that also yields the biggest laughs and the best performance. One of Jacie's problems, as an android, is that she has to be emptied of liquid through a small trap in her abdomen; and, in one lewdly funny scene, Adam dives under the table in a swanky restaurant to accomplish the task while Jacie emits contented gurgles.
Janie Dee is also transfixing as the transformed heroine. As an android she is all bright-eyed impishness: in her transition to total womanhood she touchingly conveys pain, ecstasy and iron determination.
In the end, however, what distinguishes the play from
Henceforward... is its humanity. Love and comedy survive, Jacie triumphs over threatened meltdown and even in a high-tech future, suggests Ayckbourn, human nature will not change. It's a consoling message and it's put across in the author's own ingenious production by an excellent cast of 10.
But, cheering as the play is, there are gaping flaws in its logic: it seems odd that comedy should be endangered in a future where its past treasures are instantly on tap. And I much prefer Ayckbourn the social observer - the Moliere of the middle-classes, as a German critic once called him - to Ayckbourn the sci-fi fantasist."
(The Guardian, 6 June 1998)

Comic Potential (by Benedict Nightingale)
"Alan Ayckbourn's new comedy, like his
Henceforward..., involves a cybernetic future. In the earlier play robots were apt to go awry, ending up putting babies in microwaves and pies in cradles. Here, they have advanced far enough to become "actoids", performers capable of coping with the dopey soaps that fill the nation's telly screens. Feed a computer a story-line, twist the emotion button, and, lo, you have tomorrow's EastEnders or Neighbours.
It is a funny idea, but, nicely though Ayckbourn writes about shoots in the television studio where he mainly sets the play, it cannot sustain an evening. So he has invented a plot that sometimes had me quaking with laughter but sometimes reawakened worries his recent
Things We Do for Love seemed to have answered. Our leading specialist in dark comedy and glum fun has once again, I fear, succumbed to sentimentality.
The main characters are two. Janie Dee's cute Jacie stands robotically smiling in nurse's uniform while a badly programmed doctor tells the patient in some neo-Casualty that he must amputate his foot at the "uncle". And into the studio comes Nicholas Haverson's Adam, an appealingly naive writer, hoping to persuade the powers that-be to let him restore that forgotten form, comedy, to the airwaves. Since those powers include a crusty director with his heart in the good old 20th century, a centenarian tycoon who uses the youth pushing his wheelchair as a voice, and a female executive who (one of several digs at political correctness) sexually harasses men - in ways men would never dare harass women, the dramatic signs are promising.
But Ayckbourn's ruminations on comedy turn out to be cursory and poorly integrated into the plot. Moreover, Adam's attraction to and abduction of Jacie produces mixed results. There are hilarious episodes, notably when he dives beneath the table of a grand restaurant to relieve his robot lover of the excessive drink that is noisily gurgling round her innards. But as Jacie developed painful new emotions, and acquired her very own identity crisis, I decreasingly felt that a philosophic Ayckbourn was speculating about the future of artificial intelligence and increasingly wondered if he was appealing to soft hearts in the audience. Still,
Comic Potential launches a season of ten comedies, performed by a company of ten, at the Stephen Joseph. Maybe the moment at which Jacie fells a pimp, yelling like the lesbian cop she played in yet another other soap, is more an omen than her supposedly touching wails of "there's no real me". Let's hope so."
(The Times, 6 June 1998)

Comic Potential (by David Jeffels)
"Alan Ayckbourn's latest play is all about comedy. It has a somewhat complex theme but is a joy from the opening scene onwards. It is not dissimilar to some of his previous works, with one group of characters looking analytically at another in entirely different situations.
A once big-time film producer, Chandler Tate (an immaculate performance by Keith Bartlett) finds himself directing futuristic daytime television soaps. Ayckbourn has created a superbly satirical word for the characters - actoids - actors manipulated by, an electronic switchboard.
Nicholas Haverson is brilliant, as the young trainee who achieves his ambition to work alongside the old-time, great producer. However, he finds his own niche in the television world when he becomes involved with an actoid, Jacie Triplethree - an outstanding performance by Janie Dee
Set 20 years in the future, the play, directed by the author, moves at a fine pace and is the first of the Stephen Joseph's 10x10 season. John Branwell's immaculate comedy timing, James Homsby and Bill Champion, each in three convincing parts, and Jacqueline King as the strident Carla Pepperbloom, the regional control, are complemented by great performances from Helen Pearson, Jennifer Luckraft and Pippa Hinchley.
Roger Glossop's design deserves special mention, while Kath Geraghty is responsible for the lighting and Christine Wall for the costumes.
Ayckbourn has had many international successes -
Comic Potential is certain to join the list."
(The Stage, 18 June 1998)

Comic Potential (by Charles Hutchinson)
"Comedy needs two ingredients, says 21st century director Chandler Tate, once blessed with a talent to rival Hal Roach and Preston Sturges, but now reduced to daytime soaps with fast-collapsing viewing figures.
Those ingredients are surprise and anger, and both have served not only Chandler, but his maker, Alan Ayckbourn. There is indeed a little of each in the Scarborough knight's 53rd* play, although not enough for
Comic Potential to rank with his best. This play is more a toy in his hand, with a study of human nature as its undercurrent.
Somewhere in the "foreseeable'' future, Chandler Tate (Keith Bartlett) is the burnt-out rebel directing a hospital soap in which shrinking budgets have forced him to use actoids - android actors who can be programmed to perform any emotional response, but are devoid of their own emotions.
However, Tate fan and young writer Adam Trainsmith (Nicholas Haverson) discovers that one actoid may be malfunctioning, maybe not, has a sense of humour. First he plans a TV series for the robotic yet unpredictable Jacie (Janie Dee), then he falls for her as she dances increasingly provocatively to an old "Zed Zed Top" track.
Questions arise. How much is Jacie pre-programmed to regurgitate old lines from past roles? How much is she discovering matters of the heart for real? How much is that initial burst of finding someone funny a grounding for true love? There is comic potential here of the fish-out-of-water, Eliza Doolittle variety: but in Ayckbourn tradition a more serious point to be made about manipulation.
Not too serious, however: For it is a play of amusing parts rather than a nourishing, substantial whole, from the hoary actoid soap scenes strangely reminiscent of
Emmerdale, to Jacie being programmed to burst into incidental music in moments of heightened emotion.
Typical are two cameo turns by two caricatures riddled with the worst excesses of the TV and film world. Jacqueline King's executive from hell, Carla Pepperbloom, and John Branwell's veteran luvvie with the Ken Russell hair, Lester Trainsmith, who is so self-indulgent he has a pony-tailed assistant on hand to voice his thoughts for him.
Amid Tate's philosophising on the art and craft of comedy, fans of the modern master. Alan Ayckbourn can appreciate his undiminished art of timing and admire Nicholas Haverson and Janie Dee's acting craft.
Yet if
Things We Do For Love was a return to vintage Ayckbourn last year, Comic Potential is an uncertain future, a Pygmalion for the next century without the sneering social comment."
(Yorkshire Post, 5 June 1998)

*
Comic Potential is Alan Ayckbourn's 52nd play

All reviews are copyright of the respective publication.

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