Body Language: World Premiere Reviews
Controlling Our Shapes (by Michael Billington)
"Why is Alan Ayckbourn so good? It has, I am convinced, a great deal lo do with his residency in Scarborough where he is director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round. Ayckbourn is part of a local community rather than an insulated metropolitan celebrity. His plays also have to satisfy demanding Yorkshire patrons only moderately impressed by the fact they have a world famous dramatist in their midst. Judging by their reaction to his 39th and latest play, Body Language, he seems to have another success on his hands.
What startles one about Ayckbourn is his limitless capacity for surprise. Instead of repeating old formulas, he is constantly taking off in new directions. In the '80s he wrote a series of comedies defending traditional moral values. He has now come up with a bizarre Frankenstein-ian fantasy about the human body. To what extent, he asks, is character determined by shape? Do we judge people by some impossible physical ideal? Does love look with the eye or with the mind? Do men, in particular, assess women not according to their internal worth but according to their external appeal? And is there any equation between sexual drive and physical perfection? These are some of the troubling questions raised by this extraordinary play.
One cannot debate the play's issues without disclosing something of its plot. The setting is an expensive private clinic currently being visited by a doddery, ethically dubious East European transplant surgeon. One of the clinic's patients is Angie, a pneumatic, page-three model described by someone as "a chest with legs". Her physical antithesis is Jo, an overweight local radio reporter who has come to the clinic to quiz the visiting surgeon. At the end of the first act the two women fall foul of a helicopter (piloted by Angie's separated, pop-star husband), which leads to the off-stage severance of their heads. The transplant surgeon puts them back together again, making what the clinic's apologetic boss calls "a tiny error of judgment": he stitches the wrong heads onto the wrong bodies.
The premise is outlandish, but Ayckbourn goes to a good deal of trouble in the first act to establish the differing characters of the two heroines. Angie is a pouting but not unintelligent pin-up who treats her body as a viable commercial asset and lovingly guarded temple. Jo, on the other hand, carries with her an air of emotional disappointment and career dissatisfaction that partly explains why she has allowed her frame to fall into disrepair. But Ayckbourn also pins down masculine lechery wonderfully well and the hypocrisy that underlies the Hippocratic oath. In the play's funniest scene, the octogenarian transplant surgeon ignores Jo's searching questions to gaze in eye-popping astonishment as the athletic Angie poses provocatively for a photographer.
Endorsing a point made by Alan Bennett in Habeas Corpus, Ayckbourn also shows that the boss of the clinic's feigned indifference to the bodies in his charge is a matter of pure pretence. Indeed, one of the play's side-issues is the extent to which surgeons are all too fallibly human.
But it is only after Angie finds herself burdened with a heavyweight trunk and Jo is transformed into a shapely pocket Venus that the play starts to ask genuinely disturbing questions. One obvious point Ayckbourn makes is that we are inevitably attracted to our own bodies. Having suddenly shed her surplus fat, Jo cries "I miss it, I feel like a pipe-cleaner", while Angie, mournfully surveying her newfound avoirdupois, laments: "Its like living in a disused elephant."
Ayckbourn's instinctive feminism comes to the fore in his exposure of male fickleness and cruelty. Angie's husband, once desperate to be re-united with his wife, now transfers his affection to Jo since she has the section he yearns for. Derek, a coldly exploitative photographer for whom Jo was once a ship that passed in the night, now also sees in her both a desirable sex object and a valuable property. "Love looks not with the eye but with the mind and therefore is winged cupid blind", we are told in Shakespeare. But not in Ayckbourn, where men are superficial, adolescent and calculating in their assessments of women according to their physical prowess.
Sometimes I found myself wishing that Ayckbourn would turn the tables and ask whether women also judge men by appearance. I should like him to delve a little deeper and enquire why men are so fallible and capricious: is it a biological or a cultural phenomenon? But, as always, what is so good about Ayckbourn is that he, quite literally, puts flesh on his ideas and theatricalises the moral debate. He works through images, and there is something both grotesquely funny and strangely poignant about the spectacle of the two trussed-up heroines staring at their newly acquired bodies with a wide-eyed dismay. Without disclosing the conclusion, there is also a refreshing optimism about Ayckbourn's thesis that we can exercise control over our shapes instead of being enslaved by our forms.
Ayckbourn subtly exploits the voyeuristic aspect of theatre by making the audience guiltily watch the physical transformation of the twin heroines (the make-up, if that is the word, is excellent, with the two women sloughing and acquiring highly plausible skins).
The actresses in question also undergo some of the strangest translations in the history of drama. Lia Williams is genuinely touching as Angie, suggesting the pathos of a 30-year-old model who knows her good fortune is impermanent, and reacting with bewildered sincerity to a gift of Crime and Punishment. Tam Hoskyns is equally remarkable as Jo, wearing her girth with fortitude and treating the later attempts to woo her with a sparkling disdain. Nigel Anthony as the sinister, Frankenstein-like doctor, Cecily Hobbs as his stern assistant, and Geoffrey Whitehead as a polite English surgeon also give impeccable performances.
One emerges disturbed by Ayckbourn's themes and staggered by his inventiveness. This time he has come up with a spiralling, sci-fi fantasy that makes very serious points: that appearance is not reality and that we should treat our own bodies, as well as other people's, with the respect they deserve."
(Country Life, 7 June 1990)
Dark Diagnosis Of Our National Health (by John Peter)
"If you have prejudices, prepare to shed them now. If you think that definitions are essential, take early retirement. Is Alan Ayckbourn's new play a farce, a comedy-farce, a black comedy or a tragical-comical psycho-medical entertainment? The one categorical imperative in Ayckbourn country is that on your way in you must leave your categories in the cloakroom.
What, otherwise, would you make of Body Language (Stephen Joseph, Scarborough)? It takes place at one of those expensive clinics, run by imperious surgeons with Harley Street-ish manners, where expensive girls go to have their unwanted moles removed. Enter, hobbling on two sticks, an octogenarian foreigner (Nigel Anthony) who turns out to be the clinic director's former teacher, a surgeon famous for the most daring operations and transplants.
Accompanied by a stern blonde assistant of military bearing (Cecily Hobbs), the professor has just arrived from some unspeakable Eastern European country and speaks a suitably bizarre language, possibly Sado-Croat, but his meaning is usually fairly clear. Ayckbourn knows that foreigners are funny, and the foreigner the funnier; but he is also announcing his theme, which is that people's bodies can speak as precisely and as urgently as their language, and sometimes more so.
This becomes clear as the play goes on; but the long first scene is a curious experience. It is brilliantly observed and unremittingly entertaining; but you wonder where we are going. Here is Angie, a Page Three model, known as "The Chest with Legs" (Lia Williams), who has just had a minor cosmetic op. She's pampered by her ghastly agent (Timothy Kightley) and harassed by an equally ghastly local photographer (Peter Forbes). The he-ancient from Sado-Croatia is about to be interviewed by a local radio reporter, an anxiously hearty and grossly overweight girl (Tam Hoskyns). The party is completed by Angie's estranged husband Mal, a rock musician (Robert McCulley) twitching with insecurity and excess libido. He arrives by helicopter, which provides, first an impressive coup de theatre, and then a frightful accident. Luckily - or not, as the case may be - there is now a rather special doctor in the house.
What follows is a black, hilarious fantasy, both cruel and generous, like all great comedy. It could be subtitled "Habeas Corpus". That is to say, you must, indeed, have the body, but the body also has you by the scruff of the neck. You can hate it or be proud of it, but it rules you and nags you, and it tells other people, whether you like it or not, how to feel about you. You desire someone's body and you love their mind, and you placidly assume that these two drives are actually one emotion. But how would you feel if you were confronted by the beloved head attached to an undesirable body? Come to that, which is you: the head with its thoughts and priorities, or the body with its implacable urges?
This is not an inherently funny subject; and indeed it forms the theme of one of Thomas Mann's most haunting stories, The Transposed Heads. It doesn't matter in the least whether Ayckbourn has ever read it; what matters is that the subject which drew from Mann a tale of tragic, melancholy irony has inspired Ayckbourn to write an edgy, sardonic, boisterous play, funny and distressing, fantastical and realistic - in other words, deeply and disconcertingly English.
The ending is a little wordy: Ayckbourn is playing with ideas rather than letting ideas drive his drama. But this could easily be dealt with. Body Language continues where Woman in Mind began and Henceforward... left off: they are all explorations of the confusions and dislocations of the soul to which the confusions and dislocations of the outside world provide a grim, insistent and hilarious accompaniment.
In the 21st century, scholars will doubtless agree that this is Ayckbourn's middle period. His earlier plays inhabited a different territory. Essentially they were portraits of Acquisitive Man, of social climbers and strugglers and stragglers; combatants and PoWs in the kind of psychological warfare where everyone is a hostage to someone else's good fortune or to his own bad luck."
(Sunday Times, 27 May 1990)
A Topping Tale (by Charles Spencer)
"Alan Ayckbourn clearly believes that two heads are better than one. Bravely straying into territory previously occupied by tacky B movies, his new play Body Language features a couple of decapitations, not to mention the amazing operations carried out by a sex-mad, East European octogenarian surgeon, to reunite the severed bonces with their bodies.
The trouble, of course, as any lover of pulp science fiction will have guessed is that the heads end up on the wrong bods. After their mercifully offstage encounter with the rotating blades of a helicopter, Angie, a pneumatically-breasted page three bimbo, finds herself lumbered with the hugely-overweight body of Jo, a radio reporter, whose chief consolation in life is the Mars Bar. Jo herself is less than happy to discover in her own vivid phrase, that she has become a "chest with legs".
In his 39th full-length play, now at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, Ayckbourn seems to have come a long way from the cruel, but reassuringly realistic world of his early comedies.
"Seems", however, is the operative word. An abiding theme in his work has been the male of the species' boorish treatment of women, and here his feminism becomes explicit. At the expensive private clinic where Angie has come for the removal of a mole on her bum, even the medical profession leer openly at her amazing mammary charms.
Poor Jo, vainly attempting to interview the East European surgeon, is either ignored, or insulted. After the transplant operations, both women learn a good deal more about what Anna Ford once memorably described as "body fascism".
The play is entertaining, and often very funny, but it is far from being Ayckbourn at his best. On this occasion, his love of technical ingenuity is more to the fore than his penetrating analysis of character. It is certainly an achievement to persuade the audience to accept his preposterous scenario, but having pulled this feat off, much of what he has to say is disappointingly predictable.
Everyone knows that good-looking girls get ogled and exploited while the fatties are patronised, and at more than three hours the dramatist spends an unconscionably long time re-stating a sad but far from earth-shattering truth about human nature.
But if the play finally adds up to less than the sum of its severed parts, there is certainly much to admire. The transformation of Angie into a waddling mound of flesh is achieved with the kind of special effects normally only seen in the cinema, and verisimilitude of her profitable knockers certainly can't be knocked.
Lia Williams is superb as this page three girl, as touching as she is funny. Her provocative poses during a tabloid photo session are so hilariously absurd that they can only have been based on careful observation of the real thing. Tam Hoskyns has exactly the right kind of belligerent self-defensiveness as the radio reporter, and this oddest of couple's growing understanding of and affection for each other is one of the evening's chief pleasures.
Among a rich cast of grotesque supporting characters in Ayckbourn's own production, I particularly liked Nigel Anthony as the appalling old goat of a surgeon, speaking almost entirely in a guttural language of the playwright's own devising, and Cecily Hobbs as the steely assistant who despises him. There's excellent work, too, from Robert McCulley, as a strung-out brain-fried rock star, and Timothy Kightley as Angie's oily, loquacious manager."
(Daily Telegraph, 23 May 1990)
Body Language (by Jeremy Kingston)
"In his latest comedy, Alan Ayckbourn suggests that personality is precisely related to perceived body shape, and sets off to demonstrate this with an idea of splendid simplicity: put two women into each other's bodies and see how they like it.
The idea has been used before, by Anstey in Vice Versa, where father and son switched bodies, and by Wodehouse in Laughing Gas where the couple was, if the memory serves, an odious child film star and a sweet-natured writer. Anstey's was something of a horror story, and there are moments when Ayckbourn reaches in towards the pain of the elegant woman dismayed by her sudden bulk - "It's huge, it's everywhere you turn" - and the embarrassment of the former hulk whose shapely breasts keep wobbling against her will.
The two-level stage represents the terrace and lawn of an expensive clinic where Angie, a brainless model (Lia Williams), is recovering from a minor op. Lumpy Jo (Tam Hoskyns), in a dress like a painted marquee, arrives to interview an octogenarian surgeon on a visit from Eastern Europe.
Ayckbourn conducts the interview at the same time that Angie, "the chest with legs", is favouring Derek (Peter Forbes), a recognisably crass photographer, with some fancy poses. While Jo desperately burbles on about the professor's great breakthroughs, the assembled males are staring in awe at Angie's legs, and the Page Three-breasts. Against the shapely body, the shapely mind stands no chance.
The first and shorter act is as neat as anything he has given us, beginning with the arrival of Professor Zyergefoovc (Nigel Anthony, hobbling on sticks) chatting incomprehensibly in Serbo-Polish with his translator, a first rate performance of tolerant disapproval by Cecily Hobbs. At the end of the act, when the heads of the two women have been accidentally sliced off, Jo and Angie reappear swathed in bandages, the padded hands and legs transferred from one to the other, and again the dialogue is incomprehensible; squeaks from unhealed throats that neatly finish the act.
The second act comes up with clever lines, and some twists in the pattern of shared resentments, but the story has become a succession of variations on that initial joke. Tam Hoskyns is the more fortunate of the two women in the second half, projecting suavity and a nice air of contempt. For Lia Williams, the first act gave her more opportunities to lark about with effortless bounce from all her quarters.
Ayckbourn's direction, in the round of course, is not always helpful to his audience in scenes where characters are fixed in wheelchairs; the ending also needs some trimming. A good Ayckbourn, if not a great one."
(The Times, 23 May 1990)
Hippocratic Oafs And Scalpel Wit (by Irving Wardle)
"Professor Hravic Zyergefoovc is an octogenarian satyr and homicidal transplant surgeon unleashed on Britain from his East European homeland to grope or hack off a few Western limbs for a change. Nothing, however, betokens such a monster from the opening sight of the chuckling old party who hobbles on to the Scarborough stage, cracking off-colour jokes in do-it-yourself Bosnian to his stone-faced female companion in Alan Ayckbourn's Body Language - the first of this week's two theatrical onslaughts on private medicine. [The other being, Stephen Fagan's Little Love]. One of its [Little Love's] effects is to increase your appreciation of Ayckbourn. Body Language, too, uses narrative satire to unmask the Hippocratic oafs. It, too, makes you want to know what happens next. Even more, though, it fixes your attention on what is happening now. Any summary is likely to falsify the experience of following an action in which the options remain open and every fresh plot choice seems a leap in the dark. Also, besides suspense, Ayckbourn has the weapon of surprise.
Back to the clinic, where we find Benjamin's prestige patient, the luscious Angie (Lia Williams) preparing for her Page Three comeback, attended by her thrusting manager and an invading photographer, and haunted by the dread of her manic rock-star husband, Mal. Also there is Jo (Tam Hoskyns), an overweight local radio girl who has come to interview the East European celebrity. What story can hold this bunch together? We find out when Mal drops in on them in a borrowed helicopter to suffer another matrimonial rebuff. The two girls run to wave him goodbye and there is a blood-curdling off-stage scream, whereupon the aged Zyergefoovc is after them like a race horse, shouting in perfect English, "Save the heads!"
It is a moment of stark, unprepared horror, followed by a scene only Ayckbourn could have written in which Benjamin (Geoffrey Whitehead) delivers a string of bedside platitudes while admitting that unfortunate medical confusions can occur, under the baleful glare of his two patients whose heads have been attached to the wrong bodies. Medically speaking, what follows is a period of adjustment as they croak their way back into life, each in possession of the other's most valuable property: beginning with declarations of proprietorial rights ("Don't bite my nails: if you want to bite nails, come over here!") and developing into the question of who is who. Who is Angie now that her head is perched on a mountain of flab with imperious appetites of its own? What price Jo's love of books now that her body speaks volumes?
Tackling this enigma from above and below the neck, Ayckbourn works fertile variations on the body-swap theme he first introduced in Henceforward.... The ending, regrettably, settles for a glib assertion of female solidarity against male exploitation. It could do with a few cuts and transplants a la Zyergefoovc who, with his ruthless addiction for "playing with people", evidently represents the playwright's guilty alter ego."
(The Independent On Sunday, 27 May 1990)
Fateful Flesh (by Robin Thornber)
"I'm not sure that it's technically possible for a helicopter's rotor blades to decapitate two people simultaneously so cleanly that their heads could be sewn back on - even onto the wrong bodies. But if you can indulge Alan Ayckbourn this far, the reward is an ingenious examination of what our bodies mean to us, especially women.
The bodies belong to two extremes of female consciousness. Empty-headed bimbo Angie (Lia Williams) finds herself inhabiting a frumpy lump, while independent-minded radio journalist Jo (Tam Hoskyns) is stitched into the frame of a Page Three model.
In Body Language, his 39th and latest play, Ayckbourn has created a classic Ayckbourn situation, leading to such lines as: "Don't bite my nails" and "you're very strong, aren't I?"
The context is a cosmetic clinic (an elegantly spare setting by Roger Glossop, lit by Mick Hughes), where Angie has been brought by her smooth-talking, manic manager, (Timothy Kightley), to have her one blemish, a wart on the bottom, removed by the supercilious surgeon (Geoffrey Whitehead).
Jo is there to interview a visiting veteran pioneer of microsurgery (Nigel Anthony) from eastern Europe, monitored by his sinister interpreter (Cecily Hobbs). Jo's ex (Peter Forbes), now a paparazzo for the tabloids, is there to snatch shots of Angie, and Angie's estranged rock-idol husband (Robert McCulley), who arrives in the fateful chopper.
In other hands it would be no more than a sniggering revue sketch, a sustained whimsy. But Ayckbourn terriers away at every implication of the transplants. Predictably enough, the crass brute lust of Angie's husband, manager and photographer, and the leering lechery of the clinicians, transfer with the body from Angie to Jo.
What's fascinating are the effects on the women as they adjust to each other's bodies when hope of reversal is denied them.
It's logical enough that Jo would need to acquire Angie's disciplined regime of keeping her body in shape. But would Jo's self-indulgent appetites - her chocolate-munching and her sensuous nature - transfer with her body to Angie? Does Angie's frigidity, conditioned by her experience as a passive sex object, attach to her body or her mind?
I found the play's structure slightly flawed in that it stretched the action beyond the emotional resolution where the two women come to terms with each other. But Ayckbourn's stagecraft as a director is still in peak form: he extracts immaculate performances from the whole company as well as toying joyously with the physical illusions."
(The Guardian, 23 May 1990)
Body Language (by Martin Hoyle)
"Time was when the national critics ignored the latest Alan Ayckbourn bursting upon the seaside air at the Master's home base. They preferred to wait for the starrier production in London. But on Monday the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round was not only packed to the gunwales with national scribes but rang with the mirthless, knowing cackle that bespeaks a consciously first night audience.
Coincidentally, the new work itself, for the first time in my experience, left me wishing for a blue pencil, a pair of scissors, the delete button on the word processor. It begins promisingly. A swish and discreet private clinic is currently playing host to two very different celebrities: an octogenarian surgeon from Eastern Europe whose speech seems a cognate of Serbo-Croatian mixed with Czech and Slovak, and whose controversial experiments in transplant have caused scandal in the past; and a Page Three girl, Angie, a pneumatic, long-legged blonde bearing all before her, being operated on (it transpires, after some teasing foreplay from the author) to have a mole removed from her bottom.
From local radio comes the dowdy frump, beer and chocolate-bloated bulk lumpily covered by what appears to be a flowered marquee, to interview the old surgeon. A Fleet Street papparazzo gatecrashes the clinic to snap Angie. As luck would have it, he is the ex-boyfriend of fat Jo; and comedy of sexual tension unfolds as the harassed interviewer competes with the eye-catching poses of Angie, and the venerable surgeon (played with decrepit but undeniable libido by Nigel Anthony) draws unflattering comparisons. The helicopter of Angie's husband, a 50-year-old rocker on the lines of Gary Glitter, who acknowledges applause with a pelvic swivel-and-thrust, brings things to a - er - head with an offstage accident. The surgeon's cry of "Save the heads!" must be the most grimly funny curtain-line Ayckbourn has penned.
For the rest of the play the writer toys with his brilliant idea but comes up with nothing more savage (bar sexual references) than W.S. Gilbert might have fantasised. Their heads transposed, the girls try to adapt to the alien bodies they are lumbered with ("I'm - it's - very strong, aren't you?"). The undersexed model is amazed by her new body's appetites, not least sexual, its sweat, its unexpected hair. At first determined to recapture their own, they come to a sisterly agreement, each respecting the other's body as a caretaker.
On the way there are Ayckbourn's usual flashes of beautifully judged conversational inanity - "Go home and have a few people," says the frigid model soothingly to her sexually rapacious husband, "you'll feel better" - and satire on the fast-talking, fast-swerving morality of marketing flesh. But for stretches of the second act the play hangs fire as if the author were uncertain how to resolve the situation. Squabbles over exactly whose nails Jo is biting as she champs at immaculate Page Three digits, and asking each other permission for emotional and career decisions concerning the body in trust, fizzle out. Ayckbourn is notable for his sympathetic treatment of women characters, and here is implying a moral lesson: that they should be free to find their own identity despite image-makers and masculine stereotyping. But here the men are mere shadows, remnants of what might have been a stronger satirical look at medical and journalistic ethics today.
As usual the author produces first rate performances: from Tam Hoskyns, her Jo equally convincing as pachydermal or sleekly robotic; Lia Williams' gorblimey Angie, sense and heart coming to the fore; and from Peter Forbes whose press photographer, like Geoffrey Whitehead's smooth head of the clinic, hints at incisive characterisation not honed enough by the writing."
(Financial Times, 24 May 1990)
Heads Or Tails (by Paul Taylor)
"Ever felt that your body had a mind of its own? You would if you were Angie or Jo; you would even know whose mind it had. A decapitating brush with a helicopter would do little for anyone's sense of identity but, after suffering such an accident, this central duo in Alan Ayckbourn's new comedy are dealt an almost equally critical blow. Hravic Zyergefoovc, the doddering East European surgical genius who sews them back together again, mixes up the heads - with the result that Angie (excellent Lia Williams), a pouting, air-headed Page 3 bimbo, is assigned the sweaty, defiantly neglected slag-heap of a body that belongs to Jo (Tam Hoskyns), a local radio reporter who has let herself go through unhappiness. And, of course, vice versa. "It's like living in a disused elephant," says Angie as her hands wander gingerly round her much-extended perimeter.
Agilely, Ayckbourn's comedy explores all the bizarre implications of being at the mercy of somebody else's appetites and biorhythms. The experience is a powerful eye-opener for both women. Formerly frigid, Angie is treated to a free dose of Jo's rampaging sex drive (even if Jo's body also puts off most potential partners); having, for example, to clamp her buttocks firmly in place to stop them wiggling, Jo is none the less able, from her vantage point within Angie's curvaceous carapace, to notice the automatic hostile contempt such women excite in both sexes. Only by occupying somebody else's, the play seems to argue, can one fully feel how much of one's identity is determined by its fleshly envelope.
In a situation like this, is it the bit from the neck up or the bigger bit from the neck down that defines which of the hybrids is "you"? A moot point, but for Angie's odious rock-star husband Mal (Robert McCulley), the answer is quite clear. Angie may still have the head he married, but the important parts to which he made his fervent vows are now possessed by Jo. It is she, therefore, who must give him his conjugal rights. Mal's crudity is typical of the unlovely male behaviour on exhibition at the posh private clinic, where (in desperate dread of being rumbled by the press) the body-swapping takes place. The now-nubile Jo finds herself pestered as a commercial proposition by Angie's pint-sized dynamo of an agent (Timothy Kightley) and a former boyfriend and gutter press photographer. A moment of linguistic confusion neatly illuminates the play's attitudes towards the male sex. Zyergefoovc's assistant-interpreter Freya (her humourless sing-song in Ayckbourn's invented Slavic hilariously performed by Cecily Hobbs) misunderstands Angie when she says that her father hated women. "He is a homosexual, your father?" "No, you don't have to be a homosexual to hate women - just a man, really."
Much subtler than the sometimes heavy-handed treatment of the misogyny theme is the way Ayckbourn writes and directs the growing rapport between the two women. It would have been easy to use a body-swap comedy to make cheap points against this sex - by having, say, an ugly militant feminist exchange bodies with a Samantha Fox clone and then lose all her principles. But Ayckbourn's respect for both his main protagonists is revealed in the hesitant respect he allows them to show for one another. Believing that Zyergefoovc will be able to reverse the operation, the women try to maintain the borrowed bodies in their original trim, by either fierce training sessions or systematic abuse. This charming co-operation results in the play's funniest scene where each of them pretends to be randy with lust for Mal but then, much to his discomfiture, graciously bows to the other's refusal to permit her former body to be violated in that way. Thought-provoking and characterfully acted, Ayckbourn's production lasts three hours and feels as though it could well lose 30 minutes under the cosmetic surgeon's knife."
(The Independent, 23 May 1990)
Heads We Lose With Flabby Ayckbourn (by Kenneth Hurren)
"Alan Ayckbourn has written a new play. This news is the theatrical equivalent of dog bites man.
Body Language is his 39th and, as most of the others did, begins life at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough.
Set in a fancy clinic where the speciality of the house seems to be cosmetic surgery, it directs our attention to two young women of spectacularly contrasted appearance.
One is Angie (Lia Williams), a curvaceous model in for the removal of some minor blemish on her otherwise perfectly designed body. The other, Jo (Tam Hoskyns), a grotesquely overweight radio reporter, has no interest in such frivolous readjustments. She is there only to interview a foreign professor reputed to have made some remarkable strides in transplant surgery. In getting these disparate threads of plot together Ayckbourn moves from comedy into farcical fantasy when both girls lose their heads ... literally.
They are decapitated in the clinic's grounds by the blades of a crashing helicopter. Not to worry. The visiting sawbones re-attaches the heads but, alas, to the wrong bodies.
So can the once-lissom Angie accustom herself to the fact that she now has a good head on Jo's broad shoulders? Will Jo let Angie's body go to her head?
The play raises more questions than this, also begs a few and, like Jo, carries a lot of flab. That will doubtless be shed by the time it reaches London."
(Daily Mail, 27 May 1990)
Women On The Verge (by David Jeffels)
"Any fears of Alan Ayckbourn running out of original, highly entertaining material after 38 plays are totally dispelled with his latest, which had its world premiere at the Stephen Joseph Theatre-in-the Round.
Indeed his recent plays have seen him move away from the marital dispute scenario which was the cornerstone of many of his works, and into a world of fantasy, yet still retaining his unique skill in the art of writing black comedy.
Body Language looks at two very different women - curvaceous photographic model Angie Dell and overweight, unkempt radio journalist Jo Knapton. Both claim to be happy with the way they look. But the play questions whether they really are when the story takes an unusual if humorous turn.
As always, Ayckbourn has developed some strong characters whose personalities are quickly established. Nigel Anthony as the German surgeon of international repute gives a delightfully funny performance, contrasting with the straight-laced Benjamin Cooper, brilliantly played by Geoffrey Whitehead, who runs the high-class medical clinic in the South of England where the play is set.
The two girls whose lives are shattered after a helicopter accident resulting in major "transplant" surgery which forms the backbone of the whole play, Lia Williams and Tam Hoskyns are splendidly cast. They bring out the very best in Ayckbourn's slick and polished script.
Cecily Hobbs, as the assistant of the aged German surgeon shines with her excellent timing and delivery of some superbly funny lines, and there is another fine performance from Timothy Kightley as the entrepreneurial manager of the Page 3 model, eager to seize any chance to promote her.
Robert McCulley as the rejected husband-pop singer, and Peter Forbes as the press photographer, ably complete the cast of this hit production which is also directed by Alan Ayckbourn. Having seen all the plays penned by this leading international comedy playwright, Body Language must certainly rank as one of his finest and must already be guaranteed a successful West End run - it's a real box office winner!"
(The Stage, 21 June 1990)
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