Robin Thornber, one of the most prolific and earliest reviewers of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays, died last week.
The critic, who wrote predominantly for The Guardian, is among the most significant chroniclers of Alan Ayckbourn’s playwriting career through the 1970s and 1980s. He was the first critic writing for a national newspaper to consistently review the world premiere of Alan’s plays.
Robn Thornber’s notable commitment to reviewing regional theatre was the exception rather than the rule in the 1970s and Alan Ayckbourn has noted how his support was gratefully received by those working in the regions.“We, out there in far-flung regional theatre, will always be grateful to Robin - one of the first national critics to take us and our work seriously and draw it to wider attention,” said Alan Ayckbourn.
Robin’s first review of an Ayckbourn play was the world premiere of How The Other Half Loves in 1970 at The Library Theatre, Scarborough. Although the critics Benedict Nightingale and Eric Shorter had reviewed the earlier world premieres of Mr Whatnot (1964) and Meet My Father (1967) respectively, Robin was the first critic for a national newspaper to consistently journey to Scarborough to review the world premieres of Alan’s plays during the 1970s.
His review of How The Other Half Loves noted it was an “exceptionally good play of its kind” but it was with Time And Time Again that the critic showed an erudite perception of Alan’s writing that was rare in reviews of Alan’s world premieres of the period.
“This one has a new maturity – a slower more effective pace, and deeper ambivalence. Not many plays have such a touching, complex antihero as Leonard.”
Where Robin Thornber stood out though during this time was two years later when he was the only national critic to visit all three of what became known as The Norman Conquests. His reviews offer a rare insight into the staging of the original production of the trilogy and how they were perceived and received prior to their considerable success in the West End and, of course, far further afield.
Perhaps his most significant early review though is that of Absent Friends; both he and fellow critic Benedict Nightingale the first to appreciate the fundamental change of direction Alan took with the play and the darker direction of his writing.
“There’s a breathtaking cheek about it all. Not only this production, directed by Mr Ayckbourn, stretches every silence to the verge of fidgeting. But in the way he has us laughing over the very last taboo subject, death and the way it embarrasses us. And the deeper irony is that under the giggles we’re also faced with the equal unmentionable reality of the death of love. Absent Friends is not just black comedy – which is usually funnier than gloomy – but bleak comedy, cold, hard and ruthless.”
Alan Ayckbourn has said of Absent Friends it is less about death than the death of love and Thornber was the first critic to recognise this in print.
Robin Thornber would consistently review Alan’s plays at The Library Theatre and later the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round until Alan’s final world premiere at the latter venue, The Musical Jigsaw Play in 1995, which Robin described as “a brainteaser of infinite ingenuity”.
Robin Thornber retired from writing for The Guardian in 1996, the same year Alan Ayckbourn moved his company into the new Stephen Joseph Theatre. Although Robin Thornber's commitment to regional theatre meant he was not as well known as some London critics, there is no doubting that to those of us interested in Alan Ayckbourn's plays, he offered a valuable and consistent insight into some of Alan’s most significant early writing.
Robin Thornber died of cancer on 5 December 2010, aged 66.