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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama

Intimate Exchanges

Alan Ayckbourn

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To purchase Intimate Exchanges

Title: Intimate Exchanges
Author: Alan Ayckbourn
Genre: Drama
Written: 1982
Length: 407 pages
Availability: Intimate Exchanges - volumes I and II - UK
  • Published in two volumes
  • First performed at the Stephen Joseph Theatre-in-the Round, Scarborough on 3 June 1982, with Lavinia Betram and Robin Herford, in a production directed by Ayckbourn
  • A film based on the play, Smoking / No Smoking, was made by Alain Resnais

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Our Assessment:

B+ : staggering but fascinating and entertaining multi-play

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Variety . 19/2/1993 Tom Jacobs

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The complete review's Review:

       Alan Ayckbourn has written a very large number of plays -- fifty, at least, perhaps over sixty by the end of this week or, at the latest, next. Ayckbourn has also tried a great many things in his plays, and among his more notable achievements is a willingness to push theatre to certain formal extremes. The theatre itself -- the place of performance -- frequently tempts him as something to be worked not only in but also around. From simple games like the curious perspectives of Things We Do for Love (in which two of the three flats in which the action takes place are only very partially visible to the audience) to the time-frame switches in Communicating Doors to the more ambitious twin-plays House and Garden (simultaneously played with the same actors in two adjacent theatres) he has consequently explored story-telling on the stage in the very broadest way this very limited staging area might allow. Intimate Exchanges is perhaps his most daring attempt of all.
       The idea behind Intimate Exchanges is very simple: at many junctions in plays (as in life) characters are faced with either/or decisions -- do or say one thing or another. The consequences can often be vastly different (or at least so one imagines) -- and indeed drama is littered full of 'what ifs', where audiences wonder what might have happened but for some small coincidence or an action taken or a word spoken (or not). In Intimate Exchanges Ayckbourn explores if not all so at least very many of these what ifs, presenting different versions depending on how characters (re)act in certain situations.
       After the initial choice (a character either lights up a cigarette or doesn't) each variation goes through four scenes, the sequence always presenting what happened: five seconds later, five days later, five weeks later, and five years later. Each scene ends with another bifurcation, another either-or road to follow -- so while it all begins with the same scene there are sixteen possible endings it can wend its way to.
       In a way, Intimate Exchanges is like one of those books where one is given the opportunity to jump ahead, depending on what one wants to have happend at points X or Y or Z, the story changing accordingly. And the written text -- running to some four hundred pages -- allows such a reading. But Ayckbourn meant the play to be staged, to actually be played out, variation after variation. Not only that, but he adds another constraint: only two characters appear on stage at a time throughout the play -- though there are ten separate characters. And, despite the fact that there are ten different characters, Ayckbourn means the entire play(s) to be performed by only two actors.
       In an author's note Ayckbourn acknowledges that the play(s) could be performed by a larger cast (but writes that that would be "infinitely less satisfying"), and that not all the versions have to be performed (though he thinks that would be "far less theatrically exciting"). He also asks that, if performed in a way differently than he originally intended, the audience be informed of his original preferences:

This would serve (a) to explain why the plays are so idiosyncratically constructed and (b) to let people know what they've missed.
       The central characters include two not entirely happily married couples in their late thirties. There's Celia and Toby Teasdale; Toby is the headmaster at a prep school. There's also Rowena and Miles Coombes; Rowena has been sleeping around a great deal. In addition, there's also young Sylvie, who helps out at the Teasdale's and who is, more or less, involved with Lionel Hepplewick a handyman of catastrophic inadequacy ("He's maimed thousands, he has. He's Mr. DIY himself. Dead inefficient and useless."). Among the minor characters there's also Joe, Lionel's father -- and a prolific and terrible poetaster.
       The play begins with Celia deciding whether or not to have a cigarette. Each decision greatly alters the course of events, with any number of pairings tried out along the way. Risks taken don't always lead to the desired or expected results, missteps snowball into unexpected catastrophes.
       The two married couples struggle, more or less, to maintain their marriages, but romantic entanglements (including with each other's spouses, Sylvie, and even unlikely Lionel) and other problems make for as many failures as successes.
       Remarkably, Ayckbourn manages to keep things going very well despite never having more than two characters on stage at the same time: there are numerous switches in each scene (the actress walking off as Celia and returning moments later as Sylvie, for example), and occasional off-stage conversations, and yet it all seems quite convincing -- even the monologues (or solo acts) that the actors left to themselves on the stage (while their partner switches character off-stage) offer up.
       This is a play made up essentially entirely of dialogue, but it almost never flags. Lionel certainly offers broadest comic relief (ruining a cricket pitch, having grand ambitions and designs -- which almost invariably fail stunningly (with the odd exception)), but the dialogues are almost all sprightly, sharp, and witty.
       Remarkable too is how rich the characters become over the course of the play(s), the various alternatives allowing Ayckbourn to plumb their depths more thoroughly, highlighting different facets of their personalities, showing them in a variety of situations. It is this alone that justifies what might otherwise be considered simply theatrical showing-off.
       The run of alternative scenes make Intimate Exchanges an occasionally bumpy (or rather: jumpy) read, but Ayckbourn is always amusing and often thoughtful. "Quite extraordinary ..." is the closing line. Indeed.

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Intimate Exchanges: Reviews: Smoking / No Smoking - the film: 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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© 2003-2009 the complete review

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