A Word From Our Sponsor: World Premiere Reviews

This page contains a selection of reviews from the world premiere production of Alan Ayckbourn's A Word From Our Sponsor at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, in 1995. All reviews are the copyright of the respective publication and / or author.

Devilish Wit (by Jeremy Kingston)
"The self-effacing hero of Ayckbourn's
Man of the Moment, when asked if anything made him angry, answered: "Evil," and added almost apologetically: "There's a lot of it about." In that play, and in Way Upstream, the devilish villains were both human. So far as I know, Ayckbourn has never before brought an actual devil into a play. In a sense, two devils, because the seductive Valda (Kate Arneil) frequently turns, with the help of some stage trickery, into Dale Rapley's seductive Valder.
The prosaic setting for their machinations is a small town's disused railway station - though from time to time the action halts while an express thunders through. Here the local vicar is rehearsing a Mystery Play musical. When funding runs out, he sings a prayer to God, but his words are intercepted at a lower level. Unexpectedly a train stops and the sultry Valda enters in a puff of steam. Helltrack evidently still relies on traditional fuels.
The man of the moment may have been voicing Ayckbourn's own thoughts concerning evil. In his latest play, he develops his thinking as to the way it operates on simple - and simply drawn - human beings. The Rev Harry Wooller and all but one of his co-workers know full well the identity of their new sponsor, but weakly agree to the rewrites demanded. The show, they are told, must relate to the youth of today. Mary moves upmarket to become Herod's wife, in love with a Joseph already married. And isn't the child's gender, traditionally male, politically incorrect?
Ayckbourn makes neat jokes in the areas of trendiness and moral frailty. His lyrics rhyme wittily and are set to music by John Pattison that is pleasant enough. In style, the songs range between the sweetly pure melody for the pre-rewrite Mary and the ominous beat of
It's Getting Darker Every Dawn, thrillingly sung by Arneil.
As always with Ayckbourn, who also directs, it is one of life's apparent failures who takes the stand for good. Sensibly dressed in kilt and grey cardie, Sophie Winter plants herself on the station seat to sing a ballad of yearning for the love-shy vicar - Peter Forbes, a pillar of rectitude longing to crumble. Her victory, along with everyone else's change of heart, is not earned, and this makes the affirmations of the closing Gospel number ring hollow. While the best tunes are evenly distributed between devil(s) and humans, it is the scenes of devilish temptations that contain the best drama."
(The Times, 24 April 1995)

Games Of Lust And Chance (by Andrew Billen)
A Word from Our Sponsor, his [Alan Ayckbourn] third musical with John Pattison, the metaphysics that lightly underscore Godber's drama [Lucky Sods] come to allegorical life. The high concept here is that the devil has sponsored a community nativity play. The £50,000 comes in handy, but the sponsor, who sometimes incarnates as a woman and sometimes as a man, takes diabolical liberties with the script.
The suggestion is that we are becoming particularly prey to devilish designs because our communities have been weakened by an excess of market forces. The symbol of this is the ruined, small-town railway station where rehearsals are taking place against the woosh of privatised trains that no longer stop. Satan, that great capitalist, is played, natch, with an American accent. Mercifully, the ultimate message that we can perfectly well discern right from wrong and should try it some time - has nothing to do with Clause Four.
The songs, many of them
Godspell pastiches, are fresh and clever and the cast, led by Peter Forbes (as a vicar who lacks the strength to finish his sentences) and his would-be mistress (Sophie Winter), makes them sound inevitable. Ayckbourn's direction is wizard: the first time Kate Arneil's she-devil turns into Dale Rapley's he-devil the transformation is eye-rubbingly miraculous.
The plot runs into the buffers near the end, however, when the devil withdraws his sponsorship, an event possibly true to theatrical experience but not a theatrical experience in itself. The problem may be that Ayckbourn has not decided whether this is a play about evil or about sponsorship. If he thinks the two are synonymous, shouldn't the Persil logo on the cast-list page go from the programme?
Nevertheless, on the form of these two nights out, I'd still put money on a full-blown Eighties revival by Christmas."
(The Observer, 23 April 1995)

A Word From Our Sponsor (by Robin Thornber)
"Alan Ayckbourn's latest play, launching the company's 41st season in Scarborough and the last in its current home in the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, takes a heartfelt if light-hearted look at arts funding issues as a metaphor for the shabby compromises we all face.
It opens on a lively debate between Harry (Peter Forbes), a vicar who's trying to stage a medieval mystery play in a disused railway station, and Earl (Graham Kent) the local Mr Big of showbiz, drugs and vice, who's considering putting £5,000 into the project.
When the backer backs out after his club is fired by vandals, Harry does a Faustian deal with the forces of evil - in the hermaphrodite shapes of Valda / Valder (Kate Arneil and Dale Rapley) - that eventually exposes the dark secrets of his committee of worthies.
There are some typically cunning Ayckbourn touches: the diffident, deferential hero who rarely finishes a sentence unaided; the horrific projections of a near future of technological sophistication and social collapse; and his own technical trickery with the androgynous demons of desire. There's an authentic, eerie decadence to Roger Glossop's wayside halt setting has an authentic, eerie decadence [sic], and is lit with atmospheric precision by Mick Hughes.
But this time the play is a musical - punctuated with songs which underscore each emotional crisis. While John Pattison's music can be brilliant pastiche - there's a superb sequence where Alison Burrows's introverted young punk develops a
Godspell-style star quality - it rarely rises above it.
But I loved what the show is saying about the way Thatcherite values subvert the soul. And the insidious way in which the mysterious backers gradually insist on certain changes to commercialise a sacred text suggests we are hearing the voice of painful experience.
Although the music isn't all that memorable, I suspect that Ayckbourn will have another hit on his hands that should be hitting town as the community moves into its new home in the converted Odeon cinema next year."
(The Guardian, April 1995)

On A Train And A Prayer (by Ivor Smullen)
"Britain's most prolific playwright, Alan Ayckbourn, is seeking sponsors for a multi-million-pound new theatre in a former local cinema.
The search seems to have inspired his new musical morality play,
A Word From Our Sponsor.
On a disused railway station a church committee meet to plan a religious pageant. They seek the backing of a vulgar and dodgy businessman (Graham Kent). He is not too keen. "The bottom," he says, "has dropped out of the Jesus industry."
Eventually he agrees to fork out £5,000. Joy is unconfined until a nightclub he owns burns down, and he withdraws his offer.
Left alone, the despairing vicar (Peter Forbes) drops to his knees and prays with his customary diffidence. "What sort of job can it be, he sings, "stuck listening to people like me?
A mysterious train then steams into the station disgorging two sinister, sexy and vaguely supernatural figures, a woman and a man, both dressed in black.
Sometimes, through stage trickery, they seem to merge into each other.
God, they report, is now out of touch, and so, having intercepted the vicar's prayer, they have arrived as emissaries named Valda and Valder to handle his request.
Our suspicions are aroused when they inform a widowed committee member that they have been in close touch with her late husband, who was an MP.
The strangers (Kate Arneil and Dale Rapley) offer £20,000 to sponsor the pageant subject to certain conditions. The committee are delighted.
But their pleasure wanes when Valda and Valder suggest horrific script changes to avoid libels from the Bible.
Ayckbourn's Faustian comedy, which he also directs, is witty and sardonic; his lyrics have a pleasing, natural flow. The tunes, by John Pattison, are gentle and unassuming."
(Sunday Express, 23 April 1995)

Not Quite On Song (by John Peter)
"'Anything,' Beaumarchais once said, 'anything that is too silly to be said can be sung.' This came, mark you, from the man whose most famous play was, within his own lifetime, turned into an opera by Mozart - which makes me wonder what the poor grenouille would have said if he had lived to see that great achievement of modern urban entertainment, the musical with a conscience. What, specifically, would he have made of Alan Ayckbourn's
A Word From Our Sponsor (Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough)?
I do not think you need to be defensive about musicals: there is nothing wrong with people being entertained. There is nothing inherently wrong with serious musicals either: shows such as
Les Miserables and Miss Saigon, not to mention West Side Story, have demonstrated that popular music can look after itself in up-market company. No, what is puzzling about Ayckbourn's new piece is that it is not, like Les Miserables, a famous story re-created as a musical, but that it is, like Miss Saigon, an original musical creation. In other words. Ayckbourn must have said to himself: this is what I want to say, and I need music as well as words to say it.
If so, he chose a bizarre way to go about it. John Pattison has composed for him the dullest, most pedestrian and most intensely forgettable arrangement of tuneless sounds I have come across in a work that calls itself a musical: it has no sense of character, little sense of drama, and no more drive than an antique lawnmower. In any case, what did Ayckbourn want music for? His own part of this ramshackle opus concerns a group of small-town people, led by Harry, a bouncy but immeasurably boring wet young vicar (Peter Forbes), who are trying to put on a musical mystery play. The time, according to the programme, is "Sometime all too soon". Whenever that is, it sounds all too grim. Behind all the relentless tinkle tinkle looms Ayckbourn, prophet of doom. The town's last church was knocked down three years earlier. Doctors on call have to be paid escort fees. Children are liable to delinquency and need to be placed under PAOs or parental accompaniment orders. The railway station is dilapidated: services such as the Aberdeen-Barcelona express roar through without stopping. The mystery play's sponsor, a sleek, loutish businessman called Earl (Graham Kent), opts out when his club, called, please note, the Paradise Club, burns down.
What is Harry to do? Today we have the Arts Council, which, you might say, is British culture at prayer. For Harry, there is nothing left but to kneel down and address God direct. In response, the Devil appears, first as a sleek, sexy female, then as a sleek, not-so-sexy chap. I have no idea why the Devil has two incarnations, nor why he / they appear(s) at all. Perhaps this is a sort of cock-eyed Faustian show. But if so, what's the contract? What has Harry got to sell? Or perhaps this is a Pascalian musical: the Hidden God, and so forth - but no, I can't bear to speculate. Either way, none of this quite makes sense; and you are left with a story in which the Infernal One, through his incarnations, offers to sponsor the mystery play, provided that "some unobtrusive product placement" is accepted and the Nativity story is trendily altered beyond recognition.
I do not know why anybody should think this last item at all shocking at a time when even for some Anglican bishops the divine aspects of Christianity seem to be a grey area. But anyway. Harry and his boring friends shake off the Evil One. It is not quite clear how they do this; nor is it clear what function some of the characters serve, except to unfold an improbable tale of a long-ago affair, a secret childbirth and an adoption, all of which sounds dangerously like the storyline that the Devil wants to force on Harry's mystery play. Absurdities such as this can be deeply embarrassing to watch. So, perhaps Ayckbourn felt he needed music because deep down he realised that his story was too silly to be spoken? I do not know; but I would never have guessed him to be the author of this simple-minded, confused and confusing farrago. The bracing, compassionate pessimism that underscores his best plays is replaced by a playful sanctimoniousness and finally by a boisterous but hollow optimism that sounds like a Salvation Army band playing chirpy tunes to a queue of unemployed. Some years ago, Spike Milligan was said to be planning a musical called
Joseph, I'm Having A Baby! I think I'd rather settle for that."
(Sunday Times, 7 June 1995)

A Word From Our Sponsor (by Anthony Thorncroft)
"We are in the near future, in
Clockwork Orange-land. You have to wait your turn for a fire engine and, to thwart young robbers seeking drugs, chemists only sell hand creams and enemas. Alan Ayckbourn's mood has been darkening for sometime now but his latest play, A Word from our Sponsor, finds him at his bleakest. To make matters worse, it is a musical.
The usual Ayckbourn suspects - a clueless vicar, a repressed spinster, an alienated teenager, a gormless chemist - are planning to produce a nativity play to cheer up the community. Their venue is a railway station, long bereft of trains apart from the passing expresses. All they need is a sponsor.
The vicar (Peter Forbes, ineffably vacuous) prays for a miracle, and, amazingly, in what had been a creaking evening, gets one. Through a puff of phantom steam a devil appears, or rather two lively matching imps, male and female, who offer to cough up the cash - for a little artistic input.
Can Ayckbourn be writing about the evils of business sponsorship of the arts? Surely not, since his pet venture, a £5m conversion of the local Odeon cinema into a new theatre to open next spring, has been supported by local businessmen. There may be many instances of the devil at work in contemporary society but arts sponsorship is surely not the most blatant. Sponsors are generally in awe of artistic people.
But having saddled himself with an inane plot, Ayckbourn is enough of a pro to gloss over the nonsense. There are nice touches, like the instant playback of the musical numbers and gratefully received echoes of a sunnier Ayckbourn play,
A Chorus of Disapproval, in the ego clashes of the amateur cast.
In this case the devils, sharply played by Kate Arneil and Dale Rapley, really do have the best of John Pattison's tunes, which tend to tinkle along in a happy-clappy youth club sort of way. There is also a sympathetic performance from Sophie Winter as Gussie, surprisingly in love with the married vicar who finds it impossible to express his feelings.
Less a fight between good and evil, this is more a tussle between two plots. The devils' surprisingly ineffectual attempts to take over the nativity play shares the action with the personal tangles among the cast, whose cupboards are stuffed with skeletons.
Viewed as work in progress. before an eventual exposure in London,
A Word from our Sponsor has possibilities. But the current version, with uninteresting characters, an unnecessarily bleak background and a fatally shallow premise, is crying out for some Ayckbourn style, wit and insight. Since he is also the director there is little to stop a radical re-write."
(Financial Times, April 1995)

A Word From Our Sponsor (by David Jeffels)
"Alan Ayckbourn proves, with this totally different dimension in his writing career at the Stephen Joseph, that he can still pen exciting and highly entertaining work.
This is Ayckbourn as he has never been seen before, in a musical which he has written with John Pattison. While it is the third time the two have collaborated on a musical play, this is something entirely new - a delightfully intriguing and very funny piece of entertainment.
Ayckbourn has created some superb and charmingly naive characters who seek to stage a religious mystery play with the aid of sponsorship.
Graham Kent gives a brilliant performance as the ruthless tycoon, who while believing that "the bottom has fallen out of the Jesus industry," nevertheless sees the opportunity to make money out of Bethlehem T-shirts and John the Baptist balloons.
But while the Vicar / director of the mystery play, Peter Forbes, has the greatest reservations, the thought of having £5,000 to stage it wins the day, albeit for just a few hours until the tycoon's dubious nightclub burns down and he has to pull out of the deal.
Using the setting of a disused railway station where trains thunder on their long hauls to the Continent, adds to the mystery of the story, especially when one of the locomotives does in fact stop and Valda steps off to become the saviour of the mystery play.
Ayckbourn is responsible for the marvellous direction of this musical, and Pattison's catchy numbers combine with a well crafted script to make for a wonderful and amusingly thought provoking night out.
It has an exceptionally strong cast - Eileen Page as the widow of an MP, Christopher Webber the chemist and organist for the mystery play, and his intense wife - played by Prue Clarke, while Alison Burrows' portrayal of the daughter of the future is one of the highlights.
Sophie Winter shines as the middle aged woman with long-held romantic designs on the vicar and Kate Arneil and Dale Rapley give highly convincing performances as the male and female versions of Valda.
Roger Glossop's set design is splendid and Mick Hughes deserves special mention for the lighting effects."
(The Stage, 18 May 1995)

Sponsoring Platform Soles (by Charles Hutchinson)
"The drive for sponsorship is as double-edged as a Wilkinson Sword.
Theatre projects need the funding, companies crave the product placement, but does corporate commitment buy the right to interfere with artistic integrity to ensure commercial success?
Alan Ayckbourn's 48th full length play, given its world premiere last night, probes this predicament in his third musical collaboration with musical director John Pattison.
It's a Faustian conceit, performed to Sondheim-style songs and set "sometime all too soon".
Ayckbourn foresees a queuing system for fire engines; licence checks and bomb searches at car parks; chemists being banned from selling drugs and churches chasing money as eagerly as the Rugby Super League.
In a defunct railway station, designed with ghostly atmosphere by Roger Glossop, harassed vicar Harry (Peter Forbes) is putting on a Mystery Plays production. With him are Janice (Eileen Page), haughty widow of the town's former MP; prickly Gussie (Sophie Winter), the vicar's idea of perfect crumpet; polite chemist Francis (Christopher Webber), his nervous wife Nonie (Prue Clarke), a bookseller, and Rache (Alison Burrows), their taciturn daughter.
Shady businessman Earl (Graham Kent) coughs up £5,000 for the show, until his club burns down. In, through a railway tunnel, steps Valda (Kate Arneil) promising £50,000 quicker than you can say Jack Walker, but not as quickly as Valda can turn into Valder (Dale Ripley) and back again. Harry hastily signs a contract with the Devil in Faustus tradition.
Gradually, the performers' unclean pasts seep out under the influence of the seductive, vampire-cool Valda and Valder, who waste little time in re-writing the Plays to suit their ends. You wish Ayckbourn would take this scam further but suddenly the £50,000 is withdrawn. A shame.
Ayckbourn switches, instead, to matters of faith and forgiveness in an upbeat finale. A sponsor might want a word or two about that."
(Yorkshire Evening Press, 21 April 1995)

All reviews are copyright of the respective publication.