Family Album: World Premiere Reviews

This page features a selection of reviews from the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn's Family Album at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, during summer 2022. All reviews are copyright of the respective organisation. A full list of reviews can be found on the Further Reading page.

Family Album (The Stage)
How much damage can one person cause? What happens to dreams deferred? Alan Ayckbourn’s 87th new play Family Album, which he also directs, considers these questions in ingenious ways that will be familiar to fans of his work. Unspooling in one family home through three simultaneous timelines, it offers an insight into how the past shapes the present, and how the impact of decisions can echo down generations.
In 1952, Peggy (Georgia Burnell), wife of RAF veteran John Stanton (Antony Eden), supervises a moving company as they unload the family belongings into a new house. Her creativity and imaginative eye are endearing – after years of living with her parents, this is the first home that she and John will own, and it is clear that it is a repository for her hopes and ambitions. John is jarringly different, an upright man who outwardly believes in order and plans, and scoffs at the idea of mental health and PTSD. Their disagreements always end the same way, Peggy deferring, sacrificing her needs and desires for his. And while he indulges his son, he is as dismissive of his daughter Sandy’s gifts as he is of his wife’s.
Flash-forward 40 years, and Sandy (Frances Marshall) is hosting a birthday party for her 10-year-old daughter Alison – single-handedly, in the absence of her adulterous husband. It’s clear that John’s sexism has left a lasting, corrosive legacy – Sandy has become an adult almost unrecognisable as the child who was once described as bright with a limitless future. Finally, in 2022, a now grown-up Alison (Elizabeth Boag) prepares to leave the house, moving away with her wife, Jess (Tanya-Loretta Dee). She has no desire to take any of the furniture with her, eager to unburden herself, both literally and metaphorically, of family history.
The staging is simple and clear, allowing space for the performers to shine. Burnell and Eden give a stunning portrait of a marriage that functions on the surface. Marshall sparkles as a woman on the edge, trying to make the best of a life that has short-changed her, and Boag and Dee’s relationship is refreshing for its equality and their respect for each other.
Ayckbourn tenderly delineates the ways in which the three generations of Stanton women are all shaped by John: Peggy left desperately unhappy by his constant belittling and neglect; Sandy broken by his insistence that she fits his gender role; and Alison rejecting his views and his home entirely. It’s a poignant reminder that we are shaped by our past, but we don’t have to be defined by it too.

(The Stage, 7 September 2022)

Family Album (The Observer)
Directing a masterly production, the playwright follows three generations of women in one home, from 1952 to 2022.
Alan Ayckbourn’s 87th play makes masterly use of time, space and the audience’s imaginations. Set in the living room of a middle-class south London home, it presents the experiences of three generations of women in one family, reflecting through them wider social changes in the world beyond.
The action is set in three distinct time frames: 1952, 1992 and 2022. Characters from each period appear in the same space at the same time, but are not aware of one another. Through this layering, Ayckbourn (who also directs) and his terrific team of actors and creatives make a sort of visual music, as objects, movements and actions echo across time, amplifying the text. The overall effect is sometimes funny, sometimes moving, sometimes both together; always stimulating.
I’ll sketch some brief examples. Arriving in the empty house, in 1952, full of hope, Margaret (Georgia Burnell) has the removal men site her parents’ Victorian sofa in front of the window, so she can enjoy the view. “Don’t listen to her!” barks her husband, John (Antony Eden), instructing them to reposition it. Margaret’s horizons – domestic and metaphorical – close down. Their daughter, Sandra (Frances Marshall), is talented; will John give her the same education as her brother? “Waste of time!” he declares.
While her parents are speaking, we watch the adult, 1992 Sandra stagger drunkenly across the room (as tragic here as earlier she was hilarious, frantically yo-yoing between an offstage children’s party and her absent husband’s lying phone calls). Meanwhile, in 2022, Sandra’s daughter, Alison (Elizabeth Boag), has inherited the house. She and her wife, Jess (Tanya-Loretta Dee), are preparing to move out. The couple’s relationship offers evidence that change is possible, and suggests hope for the future. As Alison leaves the empty house, though, sloughing off her physical legacy, a question hovers: will her psychic legacy be so easily left behind?

(Clare Brennan, The Observer, 18 September 2022)

Alan Ayckbourn's Playful Snapshot of Social Flux (The Guardian)
At 83, Alan Ayckbourn is making the most of one advantage he has over nearly every other playwright: perspective. Where last year’s The Girl Next Door contrasted the war- torn Britain of his youth with the era of lockdown, his 87th play skips lightly across the last seven decades to present a thoughtful, occasionally poignant view of shifting generational attitudes to the home, to work and to the role of women.
His conceit is to play three timeframes simultaneously in one upper middle-class living room. The space is delineated by an LED lighting strip on Kevin Jenkins’s set, switching from turquoise to beige to red as we move from 1952 to 1992 and 2022. At the most resonant moments, a parent from one era will stand unseen alongside the daughter from another time, emotionally present and physically absent.
The postwar to post-Brexit movement of Family Album is broadly one of female emancipation and male eradication. Georgia Burnell’s Maggie is the dedicated housewife, biting her tongue and holding the fort as the Stanton family establishes itself in 1950s London. By 1992, Frances Marshall’s Sandy has turned from hippy to alcoholic, the drink suppressing her feelings of loss at a career denied in favour of motherhood. Come 2022, Elizabeth Boag’s Alison is ready to abandon the family home, feeling free to get on with her life as a CGI graphic designer.
Men, meanwhile, become increasingly peripheral figures. Antony Eden is creepily credible as a genial 1950s chauvinist, and somehow preferable to the offstage Jerry who leaves Sandy for a fellow teacher 40 years later. Only the suggestion of domestic violence – slapping then, throwing objects now – connects the patriarchy of 1952 with Alison’s same-sex marriage of 2022.
At its best, the play reveals an elegant symmetry, the stage being filled and emptied as it shows how easily lives – both male and female – can be curtailed by circumstance. In weaker moments, especially in the first half, it meanders as if distracted by the coming and going of the furniture. But if it pulls back from the full emotional force of its own concept, it remains a theatrically playful snapshot of 70 years of social flux, all witnessed by this one perceptive playwright.

(Mark Fisher, The Guardian, 7 September 2022)

Family Album (Daily Telegraph)
According to folks in the know at the Stephen Joseph, Scarborough, Alan Ayckbourn, its former artistic director and de facto longstanding in-house dramatist, is redoubling his prolific efforts at the age of 83.
In his 1960s-'80s heyday, he conquered the West End and was the darling of the regions with his anatomisation of the middle-classes and their dysfunctions. While there have been worthwhile flourishes this century, his last big triumph was
House/Garden in 2000. His compulsion to keep going is itself compelling, but there's a clear danger, especially given that he directs his own work. of quantity over quality.
And so it proves with Family Album, play no 87 - it's decidedly middling fare, and that's partly down to it feeling strangely dashed-off. There's an intrinsic validity to the subject matter and potential in the way Ayckbourn presents it, but it looks like a bare-bones outline in need of full development.
Revisiting his perennial interest in the unhappy lot of women at their most socially circumscribed, he shuttles between eras, taking in three generations of a family, all seen in the same living room of their South London home, from first arrival to final farewell. The action begins in 1952, amid the second Churchill administration, with funnily enough - an actor called Antony Eden playing puffed-up warehouse supervisor John Stanton.
We initially see his wife Peggy (a concertedly calm Georgia Burnell) sending removal men into muted exasperation as she deliberates over the positioning of a sofa, her neurotic decisions coldly countermanded by her casually chauvinist and coercively charming hubby. The initial mood of tense marital comedy is complicated as we see the desperately unhappy product of Stanton's sexist stereotyping: their daughter Sandra (Frances Marshall) is driven to the end of her tether as a mother in 1992. Finally (and also pushing it in terms of logical time-scale), we're in 2022, with Sandra's daughter - Alison (Elizabeth Bog) - picking up the psychological pieces with her partner Jess.
Alison's unpacking of her emotions feels curiously - even implausibly - belated. But, although far too bogged down with furniture-related chatter, the interplay between the callous Fifties patriarch and his confidence-dented spouse reminds you of Ayckbourn's fine ear for conversationally inflicted damage. And, while her role involves irksome one- sided shouting during a children's party and the tiresome mimed rattling of a recalcitrant door, there's real stinging pathos to Sandra’s plaintive phone call to her dementia-addled mother.
Ayckbourn shouldn't stop, but would be advised to proceed with greater care; and lines like "It's 1952, the war has been over for ages" would make even Julian Fellowes blush.

(Dominic Cavendish, Daily Telegraph, 7 September 2022)

Family Album (Yorkshire Post)
It is Larkin’s This Be The Verse which springs to mind when watching Alan Ayckbourn’s 87th play Family Album which has had its world premiere at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
The play opens in 1952 as housewife Peggy and RAF veteran John proudly move into the first home they can really call their own.
Typically for Ayckbourn, it is not long before the fractures appear in this seemingly middle-class idyll.
The couple begins to argue about where the furniture goes – it is surprising how much venom can be instilled into the word ‘darling’ – and builds into a row about the bringing up of their son Dickie and daughter Sandie.
Peggy wants the best education and opportunities for her gifted daughter, John wants all the resources put into Dickie and, worse, thinks money spent on Sandie is a waste of time.
It would be easy to dismiss John as a misogynistic bully who thinks a good slap is the best way to discipline his children – after all “his father did it to him and made him the man he is today”. More echoes of Larkin: “But they [parents] were screwed up in their turn.”
We meet Sandie in 1992. She is living in the house she has inherited from her parents and is hosting a 10-year-old’s birthday party without her AWOL husband.
The third and final time zone of the play is now. Granddaughter Alison and her partner Jess are escaping the house Alison has inherited.
To Larkin’s final verse: “Man hands on misery to man ... don’t have any kids yourself.”
Family Album was inspired by a programme on BBC4 called A House Through Time – and Ayckbourn has copied that idea but on a smaller scale – rather than a home through the centuries, it is a look at life over the past eight decades.
Politics and social mores change – the influence of one generation of a family on that of another does not. There are profound and bleak things to be heard in Family Album but there is also love and hope – and it is wrapped up in Ayckbourn’s deft and light touch which takes you deviously into darker reaches of the soul.
There is also his characteristic playing with time – the action happens in all three time zones at the same time as the actors weave in between each other.
The performances from the cast of five – not counting the ‘to-me-to-you’ hilarious removal men – are outstanding. Antony Eden brings a pathos to the bullying and damaged minor public schooled John and Georgia Burnell a steely edge to his wife Peggy.
The most joy and laughs are in the double act which is Elizabeth Boag as granddaughter Alison and her wife, a working-class northerner Jess, played by Tanya-Loretta Dee. Boag has the most baggage to carry – a lifetime of hurt, expectation and abandonment. Her pain is obvious but so is her zest to live her life her way.
Frances Marshall as Sandie is the most damaged. Her performance as the hippy mum is deeply moving as it becomes clear she has been scarred by her childhood. To paraphrase Larkin, her parents have filled her with the faults they had and added some extra, just for her.
(Sue Wilkinson, Yorkshire Post, 7 September 2022)

All reviews are copyright of the respective publication / author.