Comic Potential: History

It is interesting to note that when Alan Ayckbourn writes about the nature of art, he does it through the medium of science-fiction. In 1987, Henceforward… explored the concept of creativity, in a near future with a fascinating robot character. In 1998, he wrote Comic Potential, exploring the nature of comedy and centring on a robot.

Comic Potential is a complex play, not to be dismissed as some critics have as merely a satire on television. It is this, but it is also a discourse on comedy, a play dealing with the nature of love, a variation on Pygmalion and even a comment on the plight and journey of women during the 20th century! As the critic Michael Billington commented, it is “over-stuffed” with ideas and a richly rewarding play to return to.

The play developed from Alan’s idea that humans appear to be the only creatures with a sense of humour and who fall in love for reasons other than procreation. From an objective viewpoint, both ideas are illogical, yet Alan was intrigued whether they define humanity and shape us. What would happen if a robot developed the ability to laugh and love? Would it be construed as a malfunction?

Also instrumental in creating the play was Alan’s concept for the 1998 summer season at the
Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough: the 10 x 10 season. This was Alan’s way of restoring a repertory company to the theatre by presenting 10 new plays by 10 playwrights - including John Godber and Tim Firth - with a company of 10 actors. Comic Potential, though, was the only production of the season which united all 10 actors within one play.

Comic Potential opened in June 1998 and was an immediate success with both audiences and critics. It also boasted a stunning central performance by Janie Dee as the android Jacie. Although Alan has always emphasised he does not write roles for specific actors, it is hard to imagine, given the exceptional demands of the role, that he did not have Janie in mind for the role (even the character’s name is similar!). Janie more than rose to the many challenges of the role and would later win Best Actress at the Olivier, Evening Standard and Critic’s Circle Awards for her performance in the London transfer; something which only one other actress at that time, Judi Dench, had achieved.

The play transferred to London in 1999 with Alan's regular producer Michael Codron taking the play to the Lyric Theatre. The desire - always against Alan's instincts - for a named star centred on the American producer Chandler Tate and after much discussion, it eventually went to the American actor David Soul who played the role very successfully, without taking the spotlight from Janie Dee's central performance. The play received largely excellent press and much publicity from Janie’s success in the role, yet despite this it was a huge financial disappointment for Michael Codron, not even recouping its production costs; one of only several Ayckbourn plays in the West End to share this fate.

Despite this, it was quickly picked up for a New York transfer in 2000, complete with Janie Dee reprising her role and winning Obie and Theatre World awards for her performance; Janie is the only actor to have played the same role in an Ayckbourn work in the world, London and New York premieres of the play.

Since then,
Comic Potential has proven to be a popular Ayckbourn work with both professionals and amateurs and proved to be particularly popular with international productions outside the UK - despite all the challenges it offers both the acting and production company. It has been published by both Faber and Samuel French and the play was adapted (as Sila komiczna) for television in Poland in 2003.

Comic Potential also continues Alan's interest in artificial intelligence - begun with Henceforward… - which sees every subsequent play moving the capabilities of the androids forwards with the emotions developed by Jacie in Comic Potential, now standard programming in the androids of Surprises (2012); although in the latter's case, their inability to lie proving to be problematic in their desire to replicate humanity.

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.

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