Invisible Friends: World Premiere Reviews


Invisible Friends (by Robin Thornber)
"Mine was Gungy: what was yours called? Most children have an imaginary friend at some time. I don't think it's actually damaging although you can never be sure, can you? They might continue to inhabit an unreal world of illusion and fantasy and turn out to be theatre critics.
Alan Ayckbourn's umptieth new play, supposedly for children of seven upwards but actually for anybody with a heart, is about a very ordinary teenager called Lucy (an engaging performance from Emma Chambers) with a very ordinary family.
With her father, Walt (Bill Moody), glued to the cowboys on the telly, her mother, Joy (Doreen Andrew), preoccupied with neighbourly gossip, and her brother, grisly Gary (Ian Dunn), enclosed in his earphones, no-one wants to know about her place in the school swimming team.
So Lucy revives her childhood fantasy friend, Zara, setting a place for her at the very ordinary tea table. This time Zara (Jennifer Wiltsie) materialises, bringing with her an idealised father and brother (Robin Bowerman, Sean Chapman), and showing Lucy how to make her real family vanish.
Ayckbourn's homely homily is embellished with a dazzling display of technical tricks - a telekinetic vase of flowers, superbly precise sound effects, and a spectacularly self tidying bedroom that brought gasps of wish-fulfilment. As both writer and director he has the theatrical gift of dreaming the impossible and making it happen.
In any other hands, devices like the knock on the head and when-she-woke-up-it-was-all-a dream might seem groaningly corny; here they are handled with such refinement that they seem almost fresh.
The moral of this cautionary tale is carefully spelled out - that when you get what you want it's not what you wanted - as Lucy's dream family turns into a nightmare. But there's a message here for parents, too, about listening to your kids.
And Ayckbourn's production, on a beautifully observed setting designed by Juliet Nichols and Geof Keys and lit by Jackie Staines, is yet another demonstration of how to achieve theatrical magic on a modest budget that many better-resourced companies could learn from."
(The Guardian, 25 November 1989)

Moral Mischief For All The Family (by Robert Hewison)
"Alan Ayckbourn's 38th new play, premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, tackles a neglected aspect of the theatre: the family audience. He has written about families before, and for children before, but
Invisible Friends makes the connection. The Education Reform Act (1989) has limited the ability of schools to introduce young people to the theatre by insisting on a parental contribution; so Ayckbourn has written something that will bring the whole family along.
It will be enjoyed by anyone from 10 years upwards, for its point of view is Lucy's (Emma Chambers) the average teenage daughter of an average family whose average domestic life is neatly framed by the banks of seats in this theatre in the round. Like many children, Lucy has long had a fantasy companion, Zara, who makes up for the banality, apathy and even hatred that can infect any family.
How Lucy's family might be is gloriously sent up in dream sequences that acknowledge Ayckbourn is dealing in stereotypes: the mum who never listens; dad asleep in front of the TV; brother seemingly umbilically linked to his rock music.
Any family would recognise the satire, but the tables are turned on Lucy when not only her invisible friend Zara (Jennifer Wiltsie) appears, but members of her idealised family as well. As in all deeply moral plays, fantasy is shown to be much worse than reality, but as in all Ayckbourn's work as writer and director, the seriousness is wrapped in rich comedy."
(The Sunday Times, 26 November 1989)

Perilous Escape From The Glums (by Harry Eyres)
"Artists of consummate skill are able to lighten textures and signal important messages more clearly in work for younger people, while remaining entirely themselves. Mozart (the "easy" C Major Sonata) and Bartok come to mind among composers. Alan Ayckbourn may not aim quite so high but he is a complete master of his craft, and here gives us not only one of the best examples of children's drama - a shamefully neglected genre - since
Peter Pan but also an utterly characteristic addition to the Ayckbourn oeuvre.
Lucy Baines is a teenage girl with a frightful family. Dad (Bill Moody), slumped string-vested in front of the box, holds the Guinness (or possibly XXXX) record for 24-hour sleeping, mum (the splendid Doreen Andrew) recites a litany of neighbours' ailments ("It can only be a matter of time") with grim relish and brother Grisly Gary (Ian Dunn) either vibrates on his bed or wards off communication by the use of personal stereo earphones.
As Lucy confides to us - she is also narrator, a potentially awkward structural device which Emma Chambers, conveying Lucy's kaleidoscopic emotional states with startling immediacy, negotiates with ease - this is a family which takes the motto "Let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die" and twists it into "Tomorrow we die, so what are you looking so cheerful about?"
Faced with such glumness, Lucy does what any normal child would do and invents an imaginary friend, Zara. Imagination is essential, the author-director is saying, and the magic of theatre is that imagination becomes real. Having already given us hilarious glimpses of an idealised family, via fantasy sequences of lovey-dovey parents and elegant small talk (the open-plan set by Juliette Nichols and Geof Keys allows instant switches of register), Ayckbourn makes Zara materialise, though visible only to Lucy.
In the seductive shape of Jennifer Wiltsie, she begins by causing mild havoc, changing round plates and monkeying with the television.
Things become more serious when she replaces Lucy's family with her own perfect one. Seasoned Ayckbourn watchers and perspicacious children may guess the outcome."
(The Times, November 1989)

Lucy's Luck (by Timothy Ramsden)
"Lucy's mum talks a lot, but not to Lucy and she always moans. Lucy's dad uses TV to accompany his sleeping while brother Gary veers culturally between The Sun and the charts. It's that sort of a family and it leads Lucy to invent a friend for herself. She can talk to Zara, show her round the house, even feed her, though of course she can't actually see her.
Until one wild stormy night that is, when Zara materialises with telekinetic powers and shows Lucy how to dematerialise her family. But that set of slobs are nothing like as nasty as the smart set Zara brings with her, father Felix and brother Chuck. Their smiling self-confidence thinly covers their certainty that Lucy is to be put in her place - until she's put out of her place as Zara's family colonize the whole house.
Ayckbourn's third play in a year for young people follows Maze Plays and The Inside Outside Slide Show in having a character transported from normality to a frightening fantasy world. As in those he has found ingenious ways to create fast comic action.
Just as Zara's family play cards reverse-side-up or bake cakes with no ingredients, Ayckbourn effortlessly packs in under two hours not only laughs but plenty of panto frighteners (with Lucy's direct address to the audience keeping the horror within limits) and theatrical trickery. His direction zips along with fine performances led by Emma Chambers' Lucy and includes a superb real-life mother from Doreen Andrew. Bakerite laws notwithstanding, there were plenty of schoolchildren in the audience, gripped throughout.
Oh, and there's a happy end, when Lucy finds it was all a dream. In this she's luckier than her adult predecessor in Woman In Mind. But there, it's nearly Christmas, isn't it?"
(Times Educational Supplement, November 1989)

Invisible Friends (by B.A. Young)
"Most of Lucy's house appears in the design by Juliet Nichols and Geoff Keys - the kitchen, the living-room, a couple of bedrooms, and we are going to need all this. Lucy's mother cares more for gossip than Lucy's selection for her school swimming team, her father cares only for television, her brother Gary cares for nothing but what comes through his Walkman.
So Lucy, a genuinely girlish Emma Chambers, confides in her imaginary friend Zara, a reliably friendly invention, named no doubt after the Princess Royal's daughter. Lucy is a great inventor, and sometimes we are shown a brief moment of her family life as she would like it; but it doesn't last. What she really wants happens when a theatrical thunderstorm brings an actual Zara into the house.
Alan Ayckbourn concedes that his latest play is partly directed at adults, and we will see at once that Zara (Jennifer Wiltsie) is trouble. She is bigger than Lucy, bossy even when doing favours, and unkind in her choice of mischief, as when she spoils Father's and Gary's breakfasts by magically confusing cornflakes and crispies. But Lucy goes along with all this, and is delighted when Zara makes the family disappear.
Not, though, when Zara brings her own family in instead, a superficially kind father and an un-Garyish brother. A couple of days with this lot is enough. Lucy is deprived of her own bed, made to play impossible games like Snap with the cards upside-down, expected to do endless cooking, ultimately locked out of the house. But Zara had once told her that you can make anything happen if you believe in it strongly enough (a principle that Lucy demonstrates by getting the kids in the audience to make a vase move by itself).
So Lucy believes her family back again (it brings on a handy faint) and returns Zara's to imagination. Mum, Dad and Gary are now delighted about the swimming team, in their different ways, and a sort of normal life resumes. My guess is that Lucy will believe in Zara again pretty soon, for though Emma Chambers is sweet, Lucy is a normally naughty girl, sentimentality not being an Ayckbourn weakness.
All the characters in this play are pretty uncharming, but they are all interestingly funny. We do not learn where Lucy's family disappeared to, but if it mattered the author, whose direction is matchless, would have told us. When Zara's family disappear they turn into ambulance workers, and serve them right."
(Financial Times, 1 December 1989)

Touch Of Magic From Ayckbourn (by Bob Tolliday)
"Everyone likes a treat at Christmas and Alan Ayckbourn's new play contains enough tricks and games to tease the most cynical theatregoer.
Invisible Friends has audience participation, slapstick and marvellous magic tricks, which are likely to bring out the kid in all of us.
At his own confession Ayckbourn has tried to create a play for the family at Christmas, and there seems little reason to doubt his success.
Lucy Baines is an Adrian Mole-type figure, played by Emma Chambers with equal touches of arrogance and vulnerability. She is an unhappy teenager who moans about her parents and brother to the audience.
Brother Gary is training to be a bucket at polytechnic and wears his Walkman like an umbilical cord, Dad is a beer-bellied couch potato gently frying in front of the TV and Mum is Dad's loyal henchman in the kitchen.
This time Ayckbourn's targets are the great unwashed but his aim is as accurate as ever. The laughs might be cheap and cheerful but, we find ourselves rooting for Lucy in her teenage rebellion.
Seeking comfort in her childhood invisible friend Zara, we see the edges of reality become blurred as Lucy's imagination takes over.
This is the world of Lucy's alter ego, a reminder of
Woman In Mind. And Zara, dressed in white and in turns mild then menacing, is merely a mirror of the girl's own weaknesses and failings.
Zara declares, 'anything can happen if you really want it to', but as with any moral tale Lucy starts to face the consequences.
To Lucy's delight the Baines disappear in one cataclysmic moment and the fun starts as Zara shows her a range of kinetic tricks which could be a show in themselves.
Pantomime and adult Ayckbourn become one, and everyone can delight as Zara moves vases and gets a bed to make itself, while adults can relish Lucy's fall from grace.
When Zara's goody-goody invisible family appear the air of menace grows as they lay down their own rules; soon Lucy is left wishing for the old indulgences of her parents.
After a descent into something more out of the brothers Grimm, our fallen hero realises the error of her ways and every parent in the audience nods in agreement as the Baines family is restored.
This is good old-fashioned stuff which praises family values and delivers a judgement on every character in turn. Perhaps parents might even find their children start to behave better afterwards; now that would be magic."
(Yorkshire Evening Press, November 1989)

Invisible Friends (by Bob Keogh)
"Theatre can only be enriched when the audience ages are thoroughly mixed: 100 per cent of any single age group is often far less rewarding to play to than an audience of mixed pensioners and infants": thus Alan Ayckbourn in the programme to his new work, aimed at a family audience.
It seems to be quite successfully on target: clearly appreciated by the younger element of the first-night audience, it contains the kind of wit which can certainly be enjoyed by the wrinklies among us.
It is, like so many fairy stories, a cautionary tale: of how, if wishing could make it so, then perhaps "it" would not be quite so inviting as we may imagine; of the drawbacks which accompany the benefits of a strong imagination.
In the immediate case, an imagination, possessed by young Lucy, strong enough to wish into existence a friend who will reassuringly provide the sort of attention which a self-absorbed family fails to provide - that family simultaneously being wished out of existence. The problem, Lucy finds, is that even imaginary friends can become demons, and are themselves likely to have troublesome families.
The lesson may be predictable enough, but Ayckbourn reaches it by an inventive path and himself directs a production which has its quota of those theatrical magic tricks which appeal to any age of spectator - climaxing in a spot of group telekinesis as the audience is invited to use its collective powers.
There is a button-holing central performance from Emma Chambers as Lucy. Her imaginary family (Jennifer Wiltsie, Robert Bowerman and Sean Chapman) display a touch of that malevolent glee which so often features in Ayckbourn's plays for older audiences; in contrast is some amiable vulgarity from the "real" thing (Doreen Andrew, Bill Moody and Ian Dunn).
There should be nothing invisible about audiences at the Stephen Joseph until December 16."
(Yorkshire Post, 25 November 1989)

A Dream Becomes A Nightmare (by Gillian Enlund)
"Lucy Baines gets more than she bargained for when her dreams come true and her
Invisible Friends come to life in a new production which materialised upon the stage of the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, last night.
This latest theatrical tale from the pen of Scarborough's Alan Ayckbourn's is aimed at all age groups, and it certainly seemed to satisfy the tastes of those from four to over 40 who filled the first night seats.
The story centres around the domestic adventures of teenager Lucy who is rather disgruntled with her unappreciative family.
She invents an imaginary pal to hang upon her every chattered word, but tumbles into a new and scary dimension when this new friend comes to life.
To say more would give the game away, but never trust ethereal beings dressed in white, that's my advice.
Emma Chambers portrays young Lucy with effervescence and vigour: a charming characterisation.
Her exasperation at her hilarious, stereotypical mum and dad is a comic treat. These roles are played with keen observance by Doreen Andrew and Bill Moody.
Her rock freak brother Gary is performed in a similarly inspired fashion by Ian Dunn.
The beings from beyond, Zara, Felix and Chuck add a magic touch to this humorous story. But there is also something spooky about this trio, played unnervingly by Jennifer Wiltsie, Robin Bowerman and Sean Chapman."
(Scarborough Evening News, 25 November 1989)

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