The Divide: Gala Performance Reviews

This page contains reviews of the reading of Alan Ayckbourn's edited manuscript of The Divide novel at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, during September 2015. All reviews on this page are the copyright of the respective publication and / or author and should not be reproduced.

The Divide (by Dominic Maxwell)
After spending seven hours of their Sunday watching this semi-staged premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s latest work, the audience rose to their feet to applaud the end of an extraordinary event. They were getting ahead of themselves:
The Divide, an account of a future, post-plague, small-town England in which men and women must live separately, still had a fifth and final act to go. It ended up lasting more than eight hours, including short intervals and a meal break. “It will never be repeated again - not in this form,” Ayckbourn announced at the start. “It’s too difficult.”
This dystopian yarn is too richly imagined, too absorbing not to return in some form, though. It comes only weeks after the opening of Ayckbourn’s 79th play,
Hero’s Welcome, yet it’s not billed as his 80th play. Arguably it’s not a play at all. Ayckbourn staged this reading with precision and panache, sticking his cast of 18 (playing 33 roles) behind black lecterns. Women wore black robes and visors, as they would in this repressive late 21st-century society, and men wore white.
The narrative is collated from years of diary entries from its school-age sibling protagonists, plus fragments of official memos and council-meeting records. There is forbidden love, insurrection, a repressive regime whose bureaucrats believe, for the most part, that they are doing the right thing.
Bad things happen but there are no all-out baddies. We are given information, then permitted to join the dots ourselves. There are laughs, but it’s no comedy. It most resembles a grimly satirical sci-fi novel for young adults, really; more
The Hunger Games than The Norman Conquests.
Ayckbourn writes with clarity and feeling about young love as well as sexual, domestic, religious and local politics. He creates memorable characters in Soween and her brother Elihu, who risks fatal disease and ends up prompting a revolution by falling for the daughter of two radical mothers.
Sure, it could take more edits - the full version is almost twice as long, we’re told - and that fifth and final act turned out to be an overextended postscript. Yet, although he has dabbled in sci-fi before, this is Ayckbourn, 76, creating a brave new world that is all his own. Whatever form it ends up in, this future tale deserves a future life.
(The Times, 29 September 2015)

The Divide (by Gilly Collinson)
Talking "in conversation" in July, Alan Ayckbourn explained the origins of
The Divide. As the next play would be his 80th,* it was suggested that he should do something special to mark that milestone. The result was an epic multi-act play which he immediately declared "virtually unstageable". Yet on Sunday night, there was an attempt to do just that, resulting in a marathon treat for Scarborough playgoers.
For a one-off event, the five-part work was read by sixteen actors voicing thirty-three characters at ten lecterns over eight hours.
Introducing this World Premiere Gala Reading of
The Divide, Ayckbourn said that it had been ”the most extraordinary experience of my life,” stressing that this was a unique opportunity to hear the work - the logistics being ‘too complicated’ to ever allow a conventional presentation.
Set a hundred years or so in the future, in a post-plague Salisbury, men and women are segregated. Men wear white as a symbol of their innocence whilst women, who are convinced by the authorities that they remain "infected", wear black robes as a sign of their guilt and sin. Homosexuality is the norm; heterosexuality is considered a perversion; and children, conceived by donor insemination, are raised by "mamas and mapas" - female couples assuming otherwise old-fashioned roles.
Told mainly through diary extracts from protagonist Soween (played at different ages by Velvet Hebditch, Terenia Edwards and Heather Stoney) and her elder brother Elihu (Sam Tennant, James Powell) we follow the children as they grow up in a misogynistic, bullying, dysfunctional culture. Very few boys are born; those that are relocate across the "Divide" to the northern, male province as soon as they reach 18. Most inhabitants are accepting of the status quo until Elihu falls in love with Giella (Elizabeth Boag) and the entire social structure starts to unravel.
Death and deceit; trials and betrayals; politics and petty council in-fighting - it’s all there, in the excruciating detail that makes the audience laugh and wince by turns. Even as a reading there were some great performances, including by Liza Goddard as Mama Chayza, Fleur Mould as the eccentric Desollia, and Richard Stacey as Tutor Rudgrin. But the greatest accolade has to go to Terenia Edwards - seldom off stage, and always central to the action.
Any dystopian-future play inevitably invites comparisons: yes, there are flavours of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and Nigel Neale - and, of course, echoes of those definitive star-crossed teenage lovers, Romeo and Juliet. But
The Divide is unmistakably Ayckbourn, skipping effortlessly between comedy and tragedy in one of this year's most significant theatre events.
(Northern Echo, 29 September 2015)

* The Divide is not Alan Ayckbourn's 80th play nor has it ever been regarded as a play; it is actually his debut novel. Alan Ayckbourn's actual 80th play is Consuming Passions.

All reviews are copyright of the respective publications.