Private Fears in Public Places
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
June 10, 2005
The art of economy is currently on display in Alan Ayckbourn’s lovely new play, Private Fears in Public Places. This subtle treatise on the solitude of modern life is lean and streamlined, with only the essential parts left in. Its points are not overwritten, and it does not hammer one over the head with its themes. There are no big dramatic flourishes—no big speeches or outbursts. Ayckbourn’s characters sputter and evade, much as people do in real life. He even makes the audience do some work, as well, leaving it up to them to figure out why he has titled the play the way he has.
Private Fears follows six Londoners who, despite their best efforts to connect with one another, are perpetually bathed in solitude. Upper-crust Nicola is optimistically looking for a new flat to share with her fiancé Dan, despite their quickly deteriorating engagement. Dan, a former career soldier discharged under mysterious circumstances, is having trouble adjusting to civilian life (and finding a job), thus sending him on daily drinking sprees. Their real estate agent, Stewart, lives with his grown sister, Imogen, and has a crush on the office secretary, Charlotte. Imogen, eager to escape the loneliness of her house, goes out nightly on blind dates (where she is constantly stood up), leaving Stewart at home watching television. Charlotte embraces a devout Christian lifestyle while attempting to curtail her own temptations of the flesh. She also works part-time as a nurse caring for the ailing father of Ambrose, Dan’s local bartender.
All of which makes Private Fears sound more complicated—and serious—than it really is. Make no mistake, there is a pervasive melancholy running through the play. But Private Fears is very simple, in design and execution, and very funny. Made up of several dozen short scenes that give it an episodic, cinematic flavor, Private Fears cuts to the chase. Ayckbourn plunges the audience headfirst into each character’s dilemma right off the bat, and shows enormous compassion for all of them even while compelling us to laugh at them. Stewart’s stuttering politeness towards his customers and co-workers is touching in its formality. Dan and Nicola’s argument over the number of bedrooms their new flat must have (Dan wants three bedrooms so he can have a study—just like his father) will strike a chord of recognition with any couple who has ever taken such nonsense so seriously. Ambrose’s good-natured indulgence of Dan’s drunken ramblings will also ring true with anyone who’s ever been cornered by a drunk at a party.
But, there’s something else at work here: the notion of how unknowable even the closest people in one’s life can be. Every character has a secret inner life that is unknown to others. Dan is completely lost without a daily structure, and his sense of manhood is damaged by the fact that he can’t currently be the breadwinner. Nicola is dissatisfied because Dan can’t be the man she wants him to be: strong in the face of adversity; flirty and romantic, like he used to be in his love letters to her. (A typical comment from Nicola: “I hope you’re going to be slightly more dynamic once we’re married.”) They are each waiting for the other to be fun again. Imogen keeps her blind dates from Stewart, telling him instead that she’s just going out again with “the girls.” Meanwhile, Stewart has a crush on Charlotte, but never tells Imogen about it. Theirs is a sibling relationship built on niceties and small talk: deep thoughts are never probed between them. Ambrose has bottled up feelings left over from the death of his male lover that remain unspoken, and Charlotte hides her lusty, exhibitionistic appetites as best she can (though not necessarily from either Stewart or Ambrose’s father) behind a veil of Bible study.
Ayckbourn directs Private Fears with a swift and sure hand, keeping the action moving smoothly (and with a minimum of fuss) from each of set designer Pip Leckenby’s five perfectly realized playing areas (three individual flats, the real estate office, and the bar) to the next. Mick Hughes’s lighting design adds a strong level of uniformity to Ayckbourn’s excellent scene transitions. All three men collaborate beautifully to make sure that the audience always knows where to look on stage. The six-person cast (Melanie Gutteridge, Paul Kemp, Adrian McLoughlin, Alexandra Mathie, Sarah Moyle, and Paul Thornley—all members of Ayckbourn’s resident acting company at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in England) all give marvelous performances, creating full-bodied people that feel authentic. There is not a false note in any of their portrayals.
Ayckbourn has stated that comedy is only tragedy interrupted. Private Fears in Public Places fits that description. It continually steers its characters towards potentially tragic circumstances that, with a quick reversal of tone and nuance, become quietly hilarious. Spend an evening with Ayckbourn and his characters, and let their foibles move and amuse you.