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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama

Comic Potential

Alan Ayckbourn

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To purchase Comic Potential

Title: Comic Potential
Author: Alan Ayckbourn
Genre: Drama
Written: 1998
Length: 119 pages
Availability: Comic Potential - US
  • First performed at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough on 4 June 1998
  • Janie Dee played Jacie Triplethree in the original production, as well as in the first London and Broadway runs

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Our Assessment:

A- : clever and amusing entertainment

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times A . Ian Shuttleworth
The Guardian A 18/10/1999 Michael Billington
New York A+ 7/2/2000 John Simon
New York A+ 27/11/2000 John Simon
The NY Observer A 4/12/2000 John Heilpern
The NY Times A- 17/11/2000 Ben Brantley
The Observer A 24/10/1999 Susannah Clapp
The Spectator A+ 23/10/1999 Patrick Carnegy
The Times B 15/10/1999 Benedict Nightingale
TLS A+ 22/10/1999 Lindsay Duguid
The Village Voice A 28/11/2000 Michael Feingold

  Review Consensus:

  Almost all loved it.

  From the Reviews:
  • "The themes and motifs -- the Pygmalion syndrome, the manner in which human personality is constructed, the competing desires for autonomy and certainty -- are expertly set up, then taken a step further." - Ian Shuttleworth, Financial Times

  • "With a mixture of progressive feminism and professional cynicism, Ayckbourn suggests both that women are the likely source of humorous rebellion in a mechanised future and that television will increasingly be run by humanised androids." - Michael Billington, The Guardian

  • "(I)t's a masterpiece. (...) (A) hilarious social satire, a disquisition on the nature of comedy, and a wistful commentary on the power and precariousness of love. (...) Comic Potential has both comic actuality and tragic potential." - John Simon, New York (7/2/2000)

  • "Alan Ayckbourn's Comic Potential (1999) is (...) one of the finest plays of all my theatergoing decades. It is a riotous farce, a tremulously exquisite love story, a superb satire on television and other human follies, a wise and serious drama full of playfully tossed-off profundities about sundry aspects of life and art, and an irresistible evening in the theater. If you are going to see only one play in your life, make it this one." - John Simon, New York (27/11/2000)

  • "Mr. Ayckbournís weirdly amusing take on the Pygmalion myth, on bad actors, bad television, romantic love, the secret of slapstick and -- while heís at it -- the farcically robotic nature of being human." - John Heilpern, The New York Observer

  • "Mr. Ayckbourn takes advantage of having a tabula rasa of a heroine to explore how and why comedy works. When Jacie sees a custard pie, for example, and uses it in the inevitable way, it's funny because it is freshly funny to her. Comic Potential also implicitly considers the degree to which everyone is the product of culture programming and outside stimuli." - Ben Brantley, The New York Times

  • "There are only two things wrong with Alan Ayckbourn's Comic Potential (...) -- it's 20 minutes too long and the title is too diffident. This is not potential comedy but comedy fulfilled." - Susannah Clapp, The Observer

  • "The idiocies of television may be a soft target for a playwright like Alan Ayckbourn, but the result is as crisp and invigorating as anything he's done. (...) This is millennial comedy just as it ought to be, tackling serious issues with weirdly wonderful invention and with the kind of exquisitely tuned humour that may win a little more mileage for such humanoids as are still abroad." - Patrick Carnegy, The Spectator

  • "Comic Potential (...) is partly satire, partly speculation, partly good fun -- and, I fear, partly a display of improbably soapish sentimentality from a dramatist who was once reliably dark, bleak, fatalistic, downbeat and British." - Benedict Nightingale, The Times

  • "Ayckbourn has a genius for technical gags: the action which freezes at the flick of a switch; the background music automatically swelling behind emotional moments; Jacie's sudden blurting out of odd lines learnt for a long-ago cop drama; the well-judged double take; the accurate custard-pie. (...) (F)unnier still are the moments of originality, when the play lifts off into sublimity" - Lindsay Duguid, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Comic Potential is a simple, straightforward, farcical comedy, with no fancy dramaturgical gimmicks. And it's often, quite simply, very funny and very charming, refreshing the tradition without altering its bounds." - Michael Feingold, The Village Voice

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Comic Potential is set in "the foreseeable future when everything has changed except human nature". Fax machines are obsolete (they "went out twenty years ago") and androids (actoids, actually) have largely replaced actors.
       The play opens in a television studio, where a programme is being put together -- a weepy soap opera. All the actors are, in fact, actoids -- and technically they aren't performing at the highest level. It is a hospital scene, and the doctor is "replacing its As with Us" (i.e. he wants to umputate rather than amputate his patient's limb) and there is a nurse laughing most inappropriately.
       The TV programme is being overseen by Chandler Tate (who prefers to be called Chance), a washed-up American film director with a drinking problem, now reduced to putting together such third-rate, low-budget shows. His support crew consists of a pair of lesbians, Prim and Trudi. To this mix is added Adam Trainsmith, a young, idealistic writer (and fan of Chandler's old film comedies) who happens to be the nephew of Lester Trainsmith, the media mogul who also owns this TV company.
       It is Adam who discovers the talents of the laughing nurse-actoid. Her name -- or her identification number -- is JC-F31-333, but she winds up being called Jacie Triplethree. And it turns out she has moved a bit beyond her basic actoid programme. She doesn't understand it herself -- she thinks it is a programming fault -- but she couldn't help laughing during the earlier scene. In fact, she is taking on some very human features.
       Jacie is able to learn, and Adam teaches her a thing or two about acting -- comedy in particular. She shows remarkable comic potential, and soon enough Adam has conceived a show for her to star in.
       The interfering hands of the extremely unpleasant Regional Director Carla Pepperbloom (a typical TV executive), threaten to ruin the project, but Adam and Jacie soldier on. They also fall in love.
       Complications and comedy abound. From wheelchair-bound Lester Trainsmith, who doesn't like to speak for himself, to Jacie's adventures in the real world as she and Adam flee the studio there are many fine scenes here. Ayckbourn delivers broad farce here, but he also shows a light, poignant touch.
       Naïve Jacie learns quickly but takes things very literally. Ayckbourn uses this very effectively, never going just for the simplest laughs but really developing a rich character here. And he goes an admirable step further than might have been expected in the devastating conclusion of the play.

       Comic Potential is very nicely developed, and Ayckbourn builds it up very effectively. Life cleverly imitates art here, but realism also always keeps idealism in check. Love and art are presented as the complex things they are, with no trite, easy answers offered. And Ayckbourn presents both hilarious farce and clever dialogue, nicely combining the two in this poignant and very entertaining piece.

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Comic Potential: Reviews: Alan Ayckbourn: Other books by Alan Ayckbourn under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Drama under review

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About the Author:

       British playwright Alan Ayckbourn was born in 1939. He has written more than fifty plays.

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© 2002-2009 the complete review

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