Anno Domino: World Premiere Reviews

This page contains a selection of reviews from the world premiere production of Alan Ayckbourn's Anno Domino which was streamed by the Stephen Joseph Theatre during the Coronavirus pandemic during 2020. All reviews are the copyright of the respective publication and / or author.

Long Married, but Open to Adjustment (by Laura Collins-Hughes)
In his new audio comedy, Alan Ayckbourn does more than write: He and his wife, Heather Stoney, portray several couples in disarray.
Ella is, to be frank, a perfectly dreadful human being - casually bigoted, wantonly unpleasant, the sort of parent who fawns extravagantly over one child and habitually belittles the other.
“Nobody likes her much,” says Raz, her teenage grandson. “Not even my granddad.”
As a dramatic character, though? She’s a monstrous marvel to watch, albeit in your mind’s eye, as she tromps through Alan Ayckbourn’s new audio play, “Anno Domino,” wreaking emotional damage. If you wonder, at the start, why her fluttery daughter, Martha, gets panic attacks before family gatherings, a little time with Ella will clear that question right up.
For all that dysfunction, though, the two-act
Anno Domino - a lockdown project directed and recorded by Ayckbourn, who plays the several male roles opposite his wife, Heather Stoney, in the female roles - is comfort-food theater.
Such is the nature of Ayckbourn comedies, of course, but there is also something to be said for the appeal right now of a play about a family in rather ordinary disarray. And for the simplicity of closing one’s eyes and listening to a story well told. (The final mix is by Paul Stear.)
The recording, for the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, England, where Ayckbourn spent decades as artistic director, is available for free online through June 25. There is also a captioned version, free as well, on YouTube. It is the 84th play by Ayckbourn, who at 81 has not performed on a professional stage since 1964, when he and Stoney last acted opposite each other.
Anno Domino finds them both in fine form.
The play’s catalytic event is the announcement by Ella’s grown-up golden boy, Sam, and his wife, Milly, that they are splitting up - out of sheer boredom with each other after 25 years, they say. For the rest of the family, a cascade of relationship ramifications follows.
The widowed Martha, a nursery-school teacher, instantly fears for the future of her nascent partnership with Craig, a sweet mechanic who is one of what Ella calls “those dubious new men.”
“I think on the whole,” Ella muses to Ben, her grumbly old bear of a husband, “I preferred the old-style male. Like you. Insensitive and inconsiderate, but at least I know where I am with you.”
Or so she has reason to believe, after approximately a thousand years of marriage. She may be mistaken.
“You know,” Ben says, “I was thinning out the lettuces just now, and I had this thought.”
Which, in the annals of quintessentially British lines, is a gleaming specimen - and which he follows with a suggestion about altering the state of their union.
Arriving when so many couples have been forced into spending more one-on-one time than they ever bargained for,
Anno Domino has a fundamental topicality.
But it’s also a play about stasis and evolution, mistreatment and regret. It’s about entrenched double standards, and the lasting harm that people commit both actively and passively. And it’s about the need to communicate - to rouse compassion, to resist cynicism.
“Keep your trust in human nature,” Ben counsels his grandson, as they garden together. “Don’t be a gullible idiot, but on the other hand, don’t lose it altogether, old chap.”
So this is comfort food, yes, but the nourishing kind.
(New York Times, 8 June 2020)

‘Anno Domino’ Review: No Stage? No Problem! (by Terry Teachout)
The latest work from Alan Ayckbourn is a two-actor, eight-character play adapted into an audio-only production.
One by one, drama companies on both sides of the Atlantic are asking themselves: What now? Even those companies that have announced their 2020-21 seasons are shying away from committing to firm opening dates for the productions they’re planning - and after they’re allowed to reopen, social-distancing requirements could make it impossible for them to seat enough playgoers to pay the bills. Meanwhile, opinion polls indicate that many playgoers will be reluctant to attend shows, whether on Broadway or anywhere else, until they can do so without serious risk of infection. How, then, is American theater to be kept alive without theaters in which to perform?
I’ve been touting streaming video in this space as a short-to-medium-term solution to the problem. But there is a second option, one whose potential has been demonstrated to richly satisfying effect by the world premiere of
Anno Domino, the 84th play by Alan Ayckbourn, the director emeritus of England’s Stephen Joseph Theatre and one of the greatest playwrights of the postwar era. It’s a two-actor, eight-character play originally intended for the stage but newly adapted by Mr. Ayckbourn for audio-only production, and it’s being performed by the 81-year-old author, who hasn’t acted since 1964, and Heather Stoney, his wife and a noted stage actor in her own right. Directed by Mr. Ayckbourn, Anno Domino was recorded by the couple in their home - they even supply their own sound effects - and the Stephen Joseph Theatre is making it available for free on the company’s website.
Most of Mr. Ayckbourn’s plays are what I call sad comedies, studies of the difficulties of middle-class life that crackle with farce-charged laughter but also have unnervingly dark moments. While some of them are predominantly light in tone,
Anno Domino occupies his usual middle ground. It takes place before and after a party thrown to celebrate the silver wedding anniversary of Sam and Milly, who have a surprise for their guests. In Milly’s blunt words, “Sam and I are splitting up... We’ve done the sex, had the kids, seen them both off the premises. We’ve had enough. We’re sick to death of each other’s company and frankly, there has to be more to life than this.” No sooner is this grenade tossed than the other characters start rethinking their own lives. Hence the title - the breakup of Sam and Milly sets off a domino effect that is a spectacular demonstration of the law of unintended consequences.
According to the author, “The inspiration for
Anno Domino came from the idea that all relationships ultimately, however resilient they appear to be, are built on sand.” That’s a well- worn theme for Mr. Ayckbourn, but it is his special genius to be able to ring perpetually fresh changes on it. And for all the bleakness of his imaginative vision of married love and its inevitable, inescapable discontents, he never fails to speak his harsh truths with a wry smile, opting as always for pure comedy of situation over Neil Simon-style jokery. Another character, for instance, sums up his own marriage this way: “I think after the first 25 [years], the rest is down to sheer stamina after that. You realise, from then on, you’re in for the long haul. All you can do is grit your teeth and stagger on to the finish line.” You laugh - you’re supposed to - but there’s a sharp barb in the laughter, and it proves even sharper once you realise that the wife of the gentleman in question is...well, not exactly the ideal partner with whom to weather the storms of life.
Mr. Ayckbourn and Ms. Stoney perform their juggling act with consummate skill (aided by discreet touches of pitch alteration that make them sound more plausible as the play’s younger characters). Their performances aren’t even slightly rusty-sounding, and
Anno Domino loses nothing at all from being heard and not seen. I wouldn’t presume to rank it in Mr. Ayckbourn’s vast oeuvre after a single hearing: All I can say is that it is completely involving, and that I expect it will have staying power and work just as well onstage.
In England, the BBC’s longstanding commitment to serious radio drama has made audio- only plays a permanent part of the theatrical landscape. That’s not true in the U.S., but what the Stephen Joseph Theatre is doing with
Anno Domino can and should serve as a model for how individual American theater companies respond to the pandemic. I still believe that streaming video webcasts of theatrical productions are the best way to stay in touch with audiences when your theater is closed - but there’s definitely a place for audio-only shows as fine as this one.
(Wall Street Journal, 4 June 2020)

Anno Domino: “Alan Ayckbourn's gentle audio drama”
From the sound of it, Alan Ayckbourn and his wife, actor Heather Stoney, have had a brilliant lockdown. As a fundraiser for the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, they have recorded an audio play, performing all the parts - from teenagers to pensioners - and creating all the sound effects themselves. It’s as silly and enjoyable as it sounds.
Even if the play isn’t world-beating - Sam and Milly announce they’re splitting up after 25 years, which has consequences for three generations of their family - the sense of joy coming through the headphones is irresistible.
Ayckbourn, not a fan of filmed theatre, decided an audio play was the next best thing to actually being in an audience. He found this play on a shelf, he says, and dusted it off, though some of that dust remains resolutely clinging to the characters, their attitudes and their dialogue.
And although there are real highlights - Stoney’s hideously overbearing matriarch Ella is a fantastically rich creation, full of comic lines and contradictory attitudes - other characters come across a bit more thinly.
Still, Ayckbourn rustles up a gentle romance based around garden centres for the two younger characters, in contrast to the rocky relationships of their forebears, and he shows warmth and sympathy towards a generation having to deal with harridan boomers, the climate crisis and all the other manifold joys of being young.
His 84th play,
Anno Domino is not going to trouble his greatest works. But in the middle of a global catastrophe, Ayckbourn’s world of marriage and manners and pure normality - a reminder of a particular kind of life and laughter - could hardly be more comforting.
(The Stage, 27 May 2020)

Anno Domino (by Michael Arditti)
Many theatres have responded to the lockdown by streaming productions online. The Stephen Joseph Theatre and Pitlochry Festival Theatre have taken a different approach by making work for the radio.
Veteran dramatist Alan Ayckbourn has never been one to shirk a challenge. This summer he was due to direct the world premiere of his play
Truth Will Out in Scarborough. With that postponed, he immediately wrote Anno Domino, a two-hander for himself and his actress wife Heather Stoney.
A former radio producer, he recorded the play at home, observing social distancing and it exhibits the playwright's customary delight in technical complexities.
The two actors play eight roles: Sam and Milly, a professional couple, who confound their family at their silver wedding party by announcing their separation; Sam' s upper-crust parents, Ben and Ella; his sister Martha and her new partner Craig; son Raz and Cinny, the waitress for whom he falls.
As so often with Ayckbourn, the emotional complexities fall short of the technical ones. Boredom may well lie behind Sam and Milly' s breakup, but the portrayal is superficial. Ben's decision to follow his son's example fails to ring true, any more than Martha's invitation to Craig to move in a mere six weeks after Sefton, her
poet husband, threw himself off a bridge.
On the other hand there are some splendidly enjoyable exchanges, whether it's Ben's insistence that he has dressed to go out whereupon Ella rebukes him for not wearing trousers or Ella's chauvinistic horror at her son moving to Italy to paint: 'What's wrong with good old English light. What about Gainsborough and Turner? They never complained, did they?' Both performances are a joy.
The production marks Ayckbourn's return to professional acting after 56 years. He splendidly delineates his four characters, in particular Craig's flat North Country vowels and Ben's crusty harrumphs. Stoney is wonderfully versatile, excelling as the elephant-skinned Ella - although one wonders what she feels about her husband's description of marriage as "Grin and bear it... comes with the package".

(Sunday Express, 14 June 2020)

Anno Domino (by Hugh Simpson)
Alan Ayckbourn has taken a play ‘off the back burner’ for audio streaming by the Stephen Joseph Theatre, where he was artistic director for many years. It has all of the hallmarks of classic Ayckbourn - razor-sharp observation, subtle skewering of preconceptions, and exploration of murky hidden depths.
It has to be stressed that this is not in any sense a streamed theatrical performance (unsurprisingly, given Ayckbourn’s stated antipathy towards the format). Instead, this is quite clearly presented as a radio play, with all that entails.
In terms of presentation, the story of middle-aged couple Sam and Milly’s announcement at their silver wedding dinner that they are to split up, is pretty much faultless. Ayckbourn (returning to acting after nearly 60 years) and his other half Heather Stoney play all of the parts of the extended family affected by the surprise announcement between them, ranging from a couple in their 70s to another in their teens.
If the youngest characters are the least convincing, this is only to be expected, and for someone returning to acting after so long, Ayckbourn’s portrayal of taciturn teenager Raz is extremely impressive.
It is nearly as many years since Ayckbourn worked as a radio producer, but he clearly has not forgotten about that either. Technically, the whole thing is top-notch; the different characters’ voices are cleverly differentiated and there is some elegant Foley work. Clearly this is a labour of love for the performers and Paul Stear, who is credited with ‘final mix’.
The fact that this was a play apparently ‘dusted off’ by Ayckbourn might lead to suspicions that it would prove to be both a minor work and a dated one. While it may not be his finest work, it is not bad either, and appears resolutely contemporary.
Indeed, anyone coming to this fresh might very well consider it to be a post-Brexit play, with many of the attitudes on display. The apparently central couple of Sam and Milly are merely bit-part players in the story they create, with the spotlight then falling on the other members of the family - notably Sam’s parents Ben and Ella, with their distrust of ‘non- English’ habits like couples splitting up rather than just grinning and bearing it.
What is being portrayed here, however, is the milieu that Ayckbourn has explored for so long. Ella, in particular, is a compellingly monstrous creation, brilliantly voiced by Stoney. It would be reductive to see her as a Little Englander Brexiteer, except in terms of the social pressures that created such feelings.
Worn down by everything from the patriarchy to recalcitrant garage doors (a symbol recurring from
Just Between Ourselves, the play Ayckbourn was due to revive this summer), she doesn’t just hate foreigners, she seems to hate almost everything and everyone, in particular those closest to her. Her clinging to an imagined past era and tone-deaf refusal to listen to anyone else’s concerns are sadly topical.
Yet this vision of familial iciness is not the basis for a misery-fest; instead, it probably counts as one of Ayckbourn’s sunnier works. The jokes (engraving S&M on a gift because M&S is ‘open to misinterpretation’) are frothy, and a couple of the characters provide definite hints of redemption.
If there are hints of both sit-com and radio soap opera, this is not a bad thing. Indeed, considering the format - including being presented as two discrete acts - it is a positive advantage. Well worth listening - and be sure to give the theatre a few quid afterwards.

(Edinburgh Theatre, 27 May 2020)

Home Work (by Mark Lawson)
Sir Alan Ayckbourn specialises in setting and solving theatrical problems - two interlocking plays acted simultaneously in adjoining theatres in
House & Garden, or several floors of a house represented on a flat stage in Taking Steps.
But, after 83 full-length plays in his 81 years, Ayckbourn faced a logistical difficulty daunting even for him - the closure of all UK stages, including his home base, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, because of a virus.
He could have written monologues for online performance by isolating actors, but other dramatists have already done that, so Ayckbourn’s response is characteristically more complex. Having started as a stage actor and being married to another, Heather Stoney, Ayckbourn recorded, in his Scarborough house, a two-hour “audio drama” with husband and wife sharing eight roles.
Anno Domino, Ayckbourn’s eighty-fourth play, has, like many of its predecessors, a titular pun alluding to a clever structure. When fifty-ish Sam and Milly announce, at a twenty-fifth silver wedding celebration, their separation, it has a knock-down effect on the relationships of Sam’s sister, Martha, and her second husband, Craig, and of Sam and Milly’s septuagenarian parents, Ben and Ella.
Thematically and structurally,
Anno Domino most recalls the nineteenth Ayckbourn play, Bedroom Farce, with family marriages dissected in parallel. In terms of acting - at least in its emergency premiere version - it resembles the twenty-ninth in the canon, Intimate Exchanges, in which two actors quick-change between 10 characters.
The dramatist has acknowledged that
Anno Domino was started but abandoned in the past, and this sometimes shows in dated references to feminism and ecology. The key scenes, though, add to the writer’s core explorations of middle-class domesticity. A wife seeking her husband’s reassurance that she could never be considered “self-centred” is a classic Ayckbourn conversation.
As when Harold Pinter acted in his own plays, it’s fascinating to hear how the characters must have sounded in the writer’s head. Ayckbourn, audibly having almost as much fun as we are, gives distinctive voices to Ben, his son, Yorkshire son-in-law, and grandson.
It’s clear why, dramatically, the writer wanted to contrast the drooping older romances with the flowering of a younger one, between teenage Raymond and Cinny, their waitress at the Silver Jubilee meal. But, in this version, that strand weakens the piece.
Helped by some trickery with pitch in the sound mix, Ayckbourn sketches an 18-year-old boy. But even the ingenious sound engineer, Paul Stear, can’t get round the fact that the female vocal register is more consistent between adolescence and senescence than the male one.
Stoney, remarkably convincing when playing both sides of an argument between Ella and Martha, struggles to differentiate Cinny, not just vocally but because the written lines don’t sound like a young woman. Perhaps sensing that the younger age group is eluding him, the dramatist makes a neat gag out of Raymond’s generationally plausible silences, but the story requires Cinny to speak.
That element could be addressed by the casting of a young actress in the staging that should surely come when theatres reopen. Until then, this is another ingenious lockdown drama treat. It’s free on the Stephen Joseph website, although donations to the theatre’s fighting fund are invited. A decent sum felt the least to be done in return for Sir Alan’s generosity to theatregoers during a career that continues to innovate and fascinate.

(The Tablet, 4 June 2020)

Marital woe and toxic politics in Ayckbourn's lockdown play (by Arifa Akbar)
The playwright and his wife, actor Heather Stoney, play all eight parts - from 70- somethings to teenagers - in his 84th drama.
Alan Ayckbourn’s hefty oeuvre lingers on the fault-lines in middle-class married life. “We all marry the wrong people,” thundered a character in
Family Circles, and Ayckbourn’s latest drama proves little has changed for his woe-begotten husbands and wives. Almost everyone in Anno Domino seems to have married the wrong person, though the central concern is more the existential state of learning to live unhappily in marriage.
A 25th-wedding anniversary dinner sparks a low-level earthquake in a middle-English household when the “celebrating” couple, Sam and Milly, announce their separation. The dramatic focus is not on them but on Sam’s elderly parents, Ella and Ben, whose own marriage is shaken by the news.
Ayckbourn began this, his 84th play, as a stage drama but then adapted it as a lockdown audio play for the Stephen Joseph theatre in Scarborough. He not only recorded it himself but acted the various parts together with his wife, Heather Stoney, from the 70-something central couple to their teenage grandson. That is a feat in itself; they play eight characters, four apiece, adding tonal differences (sometimes with the help of technical wizardry) though the pitch of the youngest characters are the least convincing.
The theatre’s artistic director, Paul Robinson, calls it “one of Alan’s ‘lighter’ plays ... perfect entertainment in these troubled times”. It’s perhaps too light”: there are some satirical amusements set beside quietly held suffering, but it feels long drawn-out at almost two hours with not enough happening and plot points that feel flat.
What raises it are the bigger background themes, besides marriage. While the drama is typically set in the domestic sphere, over cups of teas, in back gardens and cafes, and in its own seemingly timeless bubble, contemporary British politics are ingrained within including conflicts around Brexit.
Ben and Ella are sent up for their jingoism, out-of-touch outlook and snobbery, and it seems as if Ayckbourn is satirising not only the postwar leave generation but slyly satirising a toxic version of Englishness, too. Ella speaks of “foreigners everywhere you look” and pettily compares the superior joys of the English climate to the Italian one. Even divorce is tied to the national character: “Stiff upper lip and all that,” says Ben, and “splitting up. It’s just not English.”
The retrograde thinking extends beyond nationhood; some characters still haven’t grasped the basic facts on climate change, and views on the sexes are prehistoric. New men are “flaccid”, according to Ella, and new women are to be avoided.
Ben is her accomplice, but Ella is the villain of the piece. She speaks with chauvinism about women’s place in marriage and treats her daughter, Martha, with contempt, while excusing her son’s marital misdemeanours. It is a horrifying depiction of internalised misogyny and tyrannical motherhood that verges on monstrous caricature.
Ben is a more nuanced, Chekhovian character, retreating into his garden and holding on to his hope for mankind. There are some excruciating emotional moments, such as when Raymond tries to tell his mother he loves her and when Martha tries to stick up for herself in the face of Ella’s maternal imperiousness, but the play feels underpowered on the whole. It’s rather like an edition of
The Archers whose plot strands might be more fully developed in the next episode.
(The Guardian, 25 May 2020)

All reviews are copyright of the respective publication.