Watching with Winnie

by David Gardner

Alan Ayckbourn refuses to write or direct a play unless he’s shifting our expectations of what theater can do. Whether it’s moving the focus of a Christmas party to the kitchen—where the real action takes place (Absurd Person Singular)—or it’s staging two interlocking plays on two stages in the same theater at the same time (House & Garden), Ayckbourn constantly pulls the rug out from under tried-and-true theatrical conventions. And My Wonderful Day is no exception.

Rather than present a straightforward comedy of deceit and discovery, My Wonderful Day tells its story through the eyes of one little girl. Originally announced as Winnie’s Wonderful Day, the title of Ayckbourn’s 73rd play was later changed to My Wonderful Day—a change that signals the play’s truly innovative focus on Winnie’s first-person perspective. Such subjective point of view is difficult to pull off in drama, but throughout the entire play, what Winnie sees and hears, we see and hear.

“It’s a children’s viewpoint of an adult world,” writes Ayckbourn. “My theory being that children from a very early age - if they’re the listening sort, which I was - sit and listen and record what they hear and play back what they hear later in life. They are small recording machines, video and audio. I want to tell the story through Winnie’s eyes. It’s rather selective what she sees, adults drift away and you hear them talking in [a] corner but you stay with her.”

Children can be the best observers: quiet, curious, and unseen. With this play Ayckbourn fashions a world where we the audience are invited to sit with Winnie, to inhabit her point of view, to watch the adult world through a child’s eyes. And because this adult world is also our own, the play encourages us to ask: What do our serious adult problems look like to a child? What fresh light does a child’s viewpoint shed on our actions? Who, indeed, are the real children here?

Winnie is perfectly positioned to observe the world around her, because to that world she is largely invisible. Not only is she young, female, and generally non-intrusive, but she is also a poor, black, third-generation immigrant spending the day among wealthy white North Londoners. With her powers of observation heightened by the strangeness of her surroundings as well as her school assignment to write an essay titled, “My Wonderful Day,” Winnie keeps tabs on the goings on around her while blending into the scenery.

Although Winnie’s attentive silence allows the adults to behave as though no one’s watching, it also poses a directorial challenge, because a large part of the time she isn’t saying anything. Much of Winnie’s stage work is facial expression, gesture, and body position, and while Ayckbourn has long believed that theatre is enormously visual, it is only in recent years that he has begun his intensive exploration of what he calls “the space between words.” He writes that looking back on his career he’s realized that he’s “been overwriting for most of [his] life. If you are determined to write for actors, leave them something to do!”

It takes a perceptive playwright to be selective with his words, and while here Ayckbourn leaves the actors quite a lot to do, My Wonderful Day still contains the sharp wit and comedic timing that we’ve come to expect from an Ayckbourn play. In the end, Ayckbourn combines great storytelling with innovative command of the theatrical medium in order to challenge us to consider, as one critic put it, “how ridiculous our adult selves might appear to the child we all once were.” But whether the play causes us to examine our own lives, or whether we simply take joy in the uncomfortable situations characters find themselves in, My Wonderful Day offers a unique theatrical experience by inviting us not only to watch Winnie Barnstairs, but also watch with her.

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