Edinburgh Theatre Arts’ production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Improbable Fiction, directed by David McCallum, is a heart-warming and unassuming exploration of character and the creative mind.
Ayckbourn’s play is written in two very distinct acts. In the first, a group of amateur writers are introduced, coming together for a meeting where they read and critique one another’s work. As they discuss their writing, their character flaws and conflicts with one another are exposed. The second act sees the chairman of the group, Arnold, as a character in each of the writers’ stories. As Arnold is taken unwittingly down each plotline, the writers’ insecurities and self-consciousness from the first act are transformed into compelling narratives, and the very same feelings that plagued them become the force behind their gripping storylines.
The brilliance of Edinburgh Theatre Arts’ performance of this play is each actor’s ability to garner sympathy in the first act before completely reversing their personalities in the second. However, the effect is not like watching two completely different characters. Through the particular quirks and ticks each actor gives to their character, the new version of each character that comes through in the second act is completely recognisable as them, though transformed through their powers of creation into all they wish they were. For example, one of the most lovable characters of the first act is Jess, played by Mags McPherson, a morose farmer who wants to write Victorian romances but can’t find the gumption to begin. McPherson spends the majority of the first act grimacing and rolling her eyes, but with such a look of discomfort that through her condescension and rude remarks, the audience can feel her bad humour is rooted in her own self-doubt. When she enters in the second act she is transformed into an eloquent Gothic narrator, and the vision of herself as she wishes she were explains the earlier discomfort of a woman feeling out of place in her own century.
Similarly, prolific crime writer Vivvi (Kirsty Douull) is most identifiable in the first act by her raucous laughter, a nervous tick that covers up awkward moments of conversation. In the second act, as Vivvi becomes the crime-fighting heroine of her own novels, this frequent laughter becomes frequent sobs as she is slighted by the man she loves, explaining the writer’s own lack of happiness in love. The habits that each actor gives to her or himself in the first act are perfectly suited to the transformation they undergo in the second, making them all not only believable, but truly insightful assays into human character.
The romantic dynamic between Arnold (Derek Marshall) and Ilsa (Lisa Moffat), the woman who looks after his mother, is perfect. The innocence and awkwardness of the pair has all of the charm of Alice Tinker and Hugo Horton of The Vicar of Dibley, making use of the same long moments of beaming at one another suggestively without being able to form a sentence. Moffat and Marshall pull off awkward perfectly—enough to make the audience squirm without calling into doubt the actor’s own abilities.
The simplicity of the set design as the scenes change between the different writers’ stories is clear and effective. Instead of taking the time to change major elements in Arnold’s sitting room, where all the scenes take place, the only real change is in a swiveling countertop in the corner, which swaps between a modern telephone, an early twentieth century telephone, and a decanter. Audience’s eyes become fixated on this element as the scenes change, eagerly watching to see which story is coming next. It is a clever device that makes the scene changes quick and exciting, while also making it easier to identify each story as it comes.
This production of Improbable Fiction by Edinburgh Theatre Arts is intelligent, compassionate, and well thought-out. The work put into each character is evident, and all the actors and creative team members deserve the full five stars.
St. Ninian’s Hall (Venue 230)
Until 19 August
Photo credit: © Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society