Henceforward...: World Premiere Reviews

This page contains a selection of reviews from the world premiere production of Alan Ayckbourn's Henceforward… at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, in 1987. All reviews are the copyright of the respective publication and / or author. Extracts from reviews of the original London production can be found here.

Ayckbourn's Lethal Mixture (by John Peter)
"Alan Ayckbourn is an audience's dream and a critic's nightmare. Just when you think that, after 33 plays, you've finally got his number, he returns with his 34th, and it turns out to be the most original and unsettling English comedy since Peter Nichols's
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg.
Actually, comedy is hardly a full description. It takes a little while to get your bearings.
Henceforward... (Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough) is set in what looks like a cross between a recording studio and the cell of a space-age monk. In fact it's the home of Jerome (Barry McCarthy), a middle-aged composer living in conditions of emotional bankruptcy, sexual deprivation and artistic impotence. It doesn't sound like a whole lot of laughs: indeed, like the heroes of most really good comedies, Jerome is at the end of his tether.
We are in the near future. Outside, law and order have finally broken down; the windows are protected by half-inch-thick sheets of steel; and a gang of females called Daughters of Darkness roam the streets handing out summary justice to innocent passers-by. Inside, it's a laminated electronic desert, where Jerome is quivering with the righteous, lonely indignation typical of selfish men who have ruined their marriage through their own brutal obtuseness. All he has for company now is a strange female creature who moves and sounds remarkably like a machine.
Enough of the plot: this play is full of disconcerting surprises. It is as if the Mary Shelley of
Frankenstein had collaborated with the Anthony Burgess of A Clockwork Orange on a raucous, malevolent comedy of masculine inadequacy and social failure. The mixture may sound strange, but it works with lethal efficiency. After all, most really good science fiction skirts the edge of comedy; and the best (Shelley, Stevenson, Vonnegut, Ballard) are moral parables in which the fantastic becomes horribly real, and nothing is but what is not.
Ayckbourn the moralist is scoring some unsettling and sobering points. One is that if men treat women like dummies, they themselves will become so unfeeling that only dummies will seem to them like women. Another is that urban man is driving himself into a corner where efficiency becomes more important than morality or feeling. What is the difference between intelligence and programming? Is our speech no more than someone else's script? Is an efficient childminding machine any worse than a dim social worker programmed to the eyeballs with clichés? Why, come to think of it, are human beings better than machines?
This is a bitterly and brutally funny play which traps you, time and again, between your own gleeful hilarity and Ayckbourn's quizzical smile. Laughter is bought at the price of uneasy thoughts. Ayckbourn knows this perfectly well: his direction is a masterful blend of eerie menace and virtuoso comic timing. There are crisp, pointed performances from Serena Evans and Penny Bunton; and Michael Roberts plays superbly the unspeakable social worker who is programmed for everything except people."
(Sunday Times, 2 August 1987)

Henceforward... (by Martin Hoyle)
"Alan Ayckbourn has seen the future; and in fortified oases of high technology, battered by waves of urban wasteland violence, it works no better than does the present with the faltering frustrations and comic cross-purposes of Ayckbourn's Suburbia.
Roger Glossop's set turns the acting space of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round into a citadel of keyboards, consoles, computers and monitor screens, where composer Jerome synthesises, mixes and distorts music that ranges from conventional forms to a cappella babies for TV commercials. The outside world beleaguers him in the shape of messages left on his video telephone; notably Robin Herford's drummer, made redundant by high tech, whose self-pitying calls emerge from increasing violence until only his eyes are glimpsed pathetically through a mass of bandages. Hurled missiles clang against the steel shutters, screens monitor the front door which Jerome rushes to close with drawn sword.
This is Edgware, as unemployed actress Zoë, sent by the escort agency, wonderingly notes, as she staggers in beaten and mugged by the female gang that comprises local law enforcement.
Zoë has been hired to add the dimension of loving domesticity to Jerome's frozen-food-and-microchips eyrie in an attempt to trick custody of their daughter from his embittered ex-wife.
A night of what passes for passion (software perhaps describes Jerome's shortcomings all too accurately) drives her away, convinced that Jerome has a synthesiser where other men have hearts. Every breath, laugh, endearment, private function, is bugged registered and aurally transmuted into his obsessive music.
And the Ayckbourn alchemy in turning an obvious farcical element into gold is beautifully exploited when Jerome inserts something up the skirt of a slumped, still figure which clicks, buzzes and jerks into robotic life. This is grey-bunned NAN 300F, a prototype android child-minder with a sinister past and a vital future; for draped with a bedraggled Mary Pickford wig, programmed to give a smacking kiss at the word "precious" and recite nursery rhymes, it - she - is pressed into service to deceive the hostile Corinna, and Mervyn from the social services.
There are further twists in what might, but never quite does, settle into a traditional animated puppet joke out of
Coppelia or The Tales of Hoffmann. Like all satirists, social no less than political, Ayckbourn is an unwavering moralist. Like many ostensibly cynical observers of humanity he has a deeply puritan streak. The increasing bleakness of his recent vision here takes a new turn. The mechanical, even simply physical, world that cuts man down to size in play after Ayckbourn play, is here apparently tamed, but has in fact taken over. When the characters (again, a new departure for this author) actually have the choice of a human relationship, technology exerts its spell.
On the monitor we see his terrified family calling him before fleeing; the camera is smashed; the missiles resound metallically like society's death knell against the shutters. His symphony completed, Jerome asks "Is that it?" of his remaining companion, the extinguished android. The underlying cruelty of the Ayckbourn world is not just them outside, the reasonless bullying violence of our jungle society, but lies within our own callous inability to make the right choices.
Fresh from triumphs as director and writer at the National, prior to leaping into
'Tis Pity She's a Whore, the playboy of the northern world does his adopted Scarborough proud, producing a totally real artist-boffin from Barry McCarthy's Jerome and a brilliant double performance (as debby young actress, then bright young android) from Serena Evans. Penny Bunion is admirable as the mark one robot, angular and implacable, less so as an over-enunciated Corinna. But Michael Roberts as the self-important official from the social services dazzles with his mixture of chipper, arriviste cockiness and whining complacency: an admirably non-partisan blend of young Tory power and Ken Livingstone."
(Financial Times, 5 August 1987)

Noises On And Off (by Mark Lawson)
"The tuppenny moral of many modern comedies is that people just don't listen to each other any more. At the centre of Alan Ayckbourn's dark and fascinating new play is a man who does nothing else. Jerome Watkins is a composer, a wizard on the Synclavier, a "word processor for sounds" which synthesises music by "sampling" natural sounds. His work provides cover for a psychological problem.
Jerome is an electronic voyeur, an ear at the keyhole. Every room in his house is spiked with microphones, recording the talk, yawns and orgasms of any visitors. The language lacks a word for this terrible fetish but Zoë, a one-night lover whose murmurs of ecstasy are turned into the composer's "
Bedroom Suite", improvises "auditor, listening Tom." To Jerome, people are merely material - and, therefore, in any proper human sense, immaterial.
Henceforward..., Ayckbourn's 34th play, is his first with a non-contemporary setting, specified by the programme as "sometime quite soon." The playwright has extended the growing streaks of personal and external evil of his more recent plays into a near-future of political and moral anarchy. Jerome lives in London at the end of the Northern line in a police no-go zone, with the "Daughters of Darkness", a feminist-terrorist sect, murdering and mugging visitors and lobbing rocks at his steel-shuttered windows. Abandoned by a wife and daughter exhausted by his self-obsession, Jerome hires Zoë from an escort agency to impersonate a loving mate during a visit by the Department of Child Well-being to assess his suitability to see his daughter Geain.
In writing about the future, as in writing about the past, it is better not to blast the audience with eager research but to select the most telling details of the different life. Ayckbourn's tomorrow (designer Roger Glossop) is blessedly free of tin-foil blousons and, crucially, the domestic robot Nan 300F, a major character, is outwardly human and played by an actress.
The play is, anyway, less science fiction than psychological drama. Its strength, beyond the usual Ayckbourn quota of one-liners and well-crafted farce, is the creation of the central character. Jerome is an emotional blank, twice called "barely human" in a phrase which is more than a cliché. Reunited with his family, he abandons them again to run his wife's declaration of her "love" through the Synclavier. This moment, as Jerome's cold and weird Love Suite fills the stage and the Daughters of Darkness storm the building, is one of Ayckbourn's boldest and most brilliant strokes. His 34th play it may be but
Henceforward... is a step forward again."
(The Independent, 7 August 1987)

Grave New World (by Charles Osbourne)
"Alan Ayckbourn's latest play,
Henceforward... at the Stephen Joseph theatre, Scarborough, is his strangest yet and perhaps his bleakest as well, though it is not easy to interpret definitively the messages transmitted by this most prodigious and devious of playwrights.
The play is set, ominously "sometime quite soon", in a North London suburb where an electronic composer, Jerome, unable to create in the four years since his wife and nine-year-old daughter walked out on him, lives in a beleaguered bunker with a mechanical robot-woman helper he has inherited from a neighbour and partially reprogrammed in the image of his wife, Corinna.
Law and order are not what they were, and the sweet, old-fashioned policemen of today have been replaced, at least in Jerome's no-go area at the top of the Northern Line, by the Daughters of Darkness, who appear to be a fierce band of lesbian feminists administering their own brand of rough justice to gentler souls from Central London who venture into their territory.
One such gentle soul is Zoë, a young actress-model-companion, whom Jerome hires in order to convince his wife and an accompanying bureaucrat that he is fit to be given custody of his now 13-year-old daughter, Geain. (The name is "not Gaelic, just pretentious".)
Zoë arrives in a state of disarray and near-panic, having been attacked en route by the Daughters of Darkness, and finds Jerome's apartment, with its video answering machine chime (whose urgent and importunate messages from a depressed fellow-musician Jerome habitually ignores) and its malfunctioning mechanical female, NAN 300F, rather more than she can cope with. "I've acted with one or two people like this," she mutters when Jerome explains that the not quite life-like robot is scanning but not reacting.
To describe how the relationship of Jerome and Zoë develops, and precisely in what manner NAN 300F is reprogrammed, would be to reveal too much of Ayckbourn's outrageously imaginative plot. His play is susceptible to more than one interpretation, and when, in the second half, wife and daughter arrive in an armour plated limousine, with someone riding shotgun, the plot does not so much thicken as explode in several directions. The demure nine-year-old daughter Geain has, at 13, turned into a butch member of the Sons of Bitches, and looks, as her previously doting father remarks, like a transvestite truck-driver.
"If human beings behaved like machines," Jerome asserts, "we'd all be better off." The human beings in
Henceforward... do behave like machines, and the machines behave like human beings. Jerome tapes every human sound uttered in his apartment for future transmogrification into one of his ghastly electronic compositions.
We are all programmed, Ayckbourn seems to be telling us, no longer using but used by the technology we have created. Jerome's ambition is to translate into sound his vision of a world of love. At the end of the play he achieves his ambition, and Ayckbourn courageously lets us hear the masterpiece. What one makes of it hardly matters. Garbage, after all, is in the ear of the auditor, as some 21st-century poet will be sure to say. The raucous, mindless message of love blares out while, outside, the Daughters of Darkness throw missiles at the desolate composer's reinforced-steel walls. One laughs because, like
Titus Andronicus, one has no tears left.
The play is directed by the author. His cast is so good that I remembered they were actors only when one or other of them stumbled over an occasional word. Barry McCarthy is Jerome, Serena Evans and Penny Bunton cross with ease the gap between the human and the mechanical, which their playwright warns us has dangerously narrowed, and Michael Roberts is Mervyn, the man from the Ministry."
(Daily Telegraph, 1 August 1987)

Henceforward... (by Irving Wardle)
"Barely two months after the opening of
A Small Family Business at the National Theatre, Alan Ayckbourn returns to his home base with another equally substantial and markedly grimmer comedy. Henceforward... takes place in a near future of automated hypermarkets and visual answering machines, where the streets have been taken over by tribal warfare and no respectable citizen would stir abroad without an arsenal of protective electronic devices.
Out in a computerized fortress somewhere in the uncharted regions of the Northern Line lives a lonely composer, Jerome, who has not been able to depress a key of his digital audio system in the four years since his detested wife removed herself and his beloved daughter. Jerome plans to regain access to the child by hiring an actress to play his fiancée and impress the Child Welfare Department with a masquerade of perfect domestic harmony. Even though the candidate has to struggle through a marauding mob of female Satanists and arrives bleeding with her clothes ripped to shreds, the plan might have worked but for the other occupant in the flat.
This is Nan; or, more precisely, Nan 300F - an automatic child-minder, slightly lame in one of her metal legs, who clumps cheerfully round the premises clutching piles of bedding, delivering empty cups of orange juice and ticking herself off as a "silly old bat" whenever she bumps into the furniture. Zoë, the actress, regards her with deep mistrust, which turns to terror and a quick exit when she finds herself playing Rebecca to Nan's Mrs Danvers.
Inspiration then strikes the desperate Jerome who transforms the dowdy old machine into a replica of the radiant Zoë and continues the masquerade as planned. It works like a dream - which turns to nightmare when the long lost Geain arrives having undergone tribal transformation. "Screw her back on the church roof', exclaims her horrified parent at the sight of this diminutive transvestite truck-driver. But Nan, at last seizing on the task for which she has been programmed, converts Geain back into childhood form; and at last a bond of affection develops between the robot child-minder and a child who has learnt to prefer machines to human beings.
Unlike the bulk of Ayckbourn's work, this is a fable not of social observation but personal obsession: in particular that of artistic self-hatred. The world it conjures up is that of a man who, for the sake of his work, has neglected human ties and barricaded himself into a creative cell, only to discover that he has cut off his creative sources. The play makes the doubly despairing statement that human beings do each other so much damage that they would be better off living with amiably programmed machines; and that, without human models, even machines expire like the finally exhausted Nan.
In telling this essentially one-character story, Ayckbourn resorts to several abrupt changes in narrative direction. He also succeeds yet again in discovering achingly funny means of expressing extreme distress. Barry McCarthy, as the greying electronic recluse totally in thrall to his equipment, gives the author's production a feverish lead; but acting honours go to Penny Bunton and Serena Evans as the two incarnations of Nan."
(The Times, 3 August 1987)

Follow That Tune (by Tim Brown)
"Alan Ayckbourn's new play attempts to get inside the creative artist, an old exercise that traditionally traps playwrights into oratory and absurdity, the hyperbole of Amadeus or the hilarious description of the sculptor's masterwork in
When We Dead Awaken. Henceforward... exhilaratingly breaks the mould: Ayckbourn has a characteristic nuts-and-bolts solution that places the moment of creation under objective scrutiny.
Jerome is a composer who lives virtually inside a computer, a great onstage synthesiser whose flashing, hypnotic optical memory discs also entertainingly record the videophone calls that Jerome never answers, eavesdrop on his rare visitors, and guard the automatic front door of his steel-shuttered flat in an inner-city hell of the future. His flatmate is a defective android nanny that customarily wears the face of the last woman in his life and keeps its more troublesome microchips in rather inaccessible corners of its erogenous zones.
Jerome is enduring a three year writer's block caused by his estrangement from his wife and daughter, which in turn was caused by his morose egotism and total absorption in his keyboards. The spark of Ayckbourn's plot is a chance of access to the daughter, which throws Jerome into a farcical plan to pass himself off as a suitable parent capable of holding down a relationship.
But it's a fraud: at the moment of reunion he hits on the sequence that has eluded him, and abandons his family to a street mob while he hammers out a stunning blast of music based on the endless, cloning of the single word "love."
At the Stephen Joseph Theatre these electric closing minutes hit the technical perfection they require in Paul Todd's score, Barry McCarthy's precisely timed whirling dance at the computer controls, and the hero's instant splashdown from elation to deflation as the play ends. The pole-axed audience emerge appalled by Jerome's addiction but high on the same drug.
The computer's role in the play is theatre engineering at its most purist. The science fiction elements often look more like added-on styling, but they are often very funny - Penny Bunton as the crotchety android, Michael Roberts as an obsequious child care officer whose clothes are wired for everything from winter cold to personal attack. When Jerome's long-lost daughter eventually appears she has joined a macho girls' sect and grown a beard.
If there is a weakness in Ayckbourn's own direction, it's that the characters generally do not have the hard satirical edge needed to sustain some otherwise incredible events, or the script's very black line in jokes."
(The Guardian, 1 August 1987)

Henceforward... (by Michael Ratcliffe)
"Alan Ayckbourn's newest new play,
Henceforward..., (Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, Scarborough), is set in a near future when Edgware is run by vigilante mob feminists and is more dangerous than Kilburn because it has no police. The Tube still seems to be running, although to walk from the station would be unwise. Justin [sic] (Barry McCarthy) is a modern composer surrounded by keyboards, synclaviers and screens.
He is painfully separated from his wife Corinna (Penny Bunton) and 13-year-old daughter Geain, pronounced Jane (Emma Chambers). For company, Justin [sic] keeps NAN 300F, a humanoid artificial childminder with the bright eye and assiduous energies of a small brown bird. 'It's alright,' he reassures Zoë (Serena Evans), a delicious if goofy young actress he has hired from an escort agency, 'she's actually on stand-by.' 'Yes. . .' replies Zoë thoughtfully, 'I think I've acted with people like this.'
In order to impress the fierce Corinna and the berk from the Ministry of Child Welfare that he is fit to have access to Jane, Justin [sic] reprogrammes the humanoid with the qualities, memory and appearance of Zoë, complete with tumbling blonde curls and silvery coloratura laugh. NAN is played by Miss Bunton in act one, and by Miss Evans in act two. Both sustain the impersonation without irritating us in the least; McCarthy is excellent at sympathetic indecision and incompetent despair.
Two questions are proposed, half seriously and unanswerably, by this gentle Frankenstein. Are machines better than people? Justin [sic] cannot of course say that they are, but given the kind of friends and family he has and the fact that Ayckbourn's characters are so often programmed with the devious banalities of received opinion and daily life, neither can he definitely say they are not.
What does love sound like? Justin [sic] wants to discover a sound so perfect and precise it will be recognised at once. The answer turns out to be the sound of the word 'love,' plain spoken into his face with merciless clarity by Corinna, then distorted ingeniously but decadently by his machines. (Music by Paul Todd, synclavier programmed by Yasmin Hashmi.)
It is a cool, clever, doodling kind of play, intermittently funny, but excessively long and with no kind of solid emotional ground (unlike, say,
A Chorus of Disapproval) between soft sentimentality and hard ice."
(The Observer, 9 August 1987)

Henceforward... (by David Jeffels)
"Alan Ayckbourn ventures into the world of hi-tech to create a complete new style of play for his latest work,
Henceforward... - the 34th play in his remarkable writing career.
While there is still the theme of conflict between man and wife, as in many of his previous plays, it forms very much a backcloth to the main story in this extremely funny and very clever play which, like all previous Ayckbourn productions, had its world premiere at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough.
The plot may be very un-Ayckbourn, but the humour very definitely is. It centres on a composer anxious to get his child back after his wife has left him. To convince the social service officials that he has a stable home he creates NAN 300F, a star android, with the help of his array of computers.
There are some brilliant performances in this production which Ayckbourn has directed, with Serena Evans, a sheer delight as Zoë and Barry McCarthy as Jerome, the composer. Robin Herford, the theatre's assistant director appears only on film as does charming little Victoria Horsfield.
Michael Roberts, fast becoming a well established favourite at the Stephen Joseph, gives a first class performance as the typical image of a civil servant and Penny Bunton plays a splendid part as Corinna, and shares the dual role of NAN 300F, while Chambers is convincing as a 13 year old.
Having seen all the previous Ayckbourn plays over more than two decades at the Stephen Joseph, it never ceases to amaze me just how he can consistently write success after success.
Henceforward... is undoubtedly warning us of the threat of computers taking over our lives, but with people of Ayckbourn's calibre commenting on it, so effectively, and in such a light-headed way, we can hopefully recognise the symptoms before it's too late.
Ayckbourn most certainly has another hit on his hands and the West End has a real treat in store when it finds its way to the London stage next year."
(The Stage, 10 September 1987)

Ayckbourn Goes Hi-Tech (by Jeannie Swales)
"If you thought Alan Ayckbourn was all about anguish in Surbiton sitting rooms, think again.
Henceforward..., he takes us into the realms of high-tech angst in Edgware.
Jerome (Barry McCarthy) is a composer, living somewhere in the very near future. He has a lot of problems, does Jerome. His wife has left him, and he desperately wants his daughter Geain (pronounced Jane) back.
But to get Geain back, he has to negotiate the maze of the government's child welfare department, and decides to do so in a most unconventional manner.
Henceforward... may be set in the future, and may contain a lot of new, technological answers to some basic problems. But it tackles some very old themes.
The problems of the one parent family are highlighted. Man, in all his creative glory, but in thrall to the machine, is a major theme. And the age-old story of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and boy (possibly?) regains girl, plays a big part in this tragi-comic story.
But, more than anything else, the onslaught of technology on the life of the average human being, is a concern of this play.
Jerome may be an exception, obsessed with computers to the extent that they take over his life. But Ayckbourn is warning all of us that a similar tyranny is just around the corner.
Barry McCarthy is excellent as Jerome, but would have a hard task to beat Serena Evans and Penny Bunton, who play dual roles as Zoë and Corinna, and NAN 300F, the star android.
Robin Herford probably earns his easiest night's wages in a long time, appearing only on film, as does charming little Victoria Horsfield.
Michael Roberts is excellent as Mervyn, the archetypal civil servant and Emma Chambers, a fully adult actress, is a convincing 13-year-old.
Ayckbourn has taken a step out of the norm in this play - the middle-class, suburban kitchen-sink dramas we have come to expect have given way to
Brave New World vision of a bleak new world where all that is new bring evil, and old traditions of family life provide a moral standard.
It is also extremely funny, with a lightness and deftness of touch that we have come to expect from Ayckbourn."
(Scarborough Evening News, 31 July 1987)

All reviews are copyright of the respective publication.