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Book and Lyrics by Alan Ayckbourn : Music by Paul Todd

Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough - 18 January, 1980
The Round House, London - 5th February, 1981


Suburban Strains is the first full length collaboration by Alan Ayckbourn and Paul Todd and was premièred at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, Scarborough, in 1980, transferring to the Round House, London, in 1981. 

Caroline marries an unemployed actor, Kevin, whom she supports while he flirts with women and spoils her flat with his oafish behaviour. Eventually he seduces one of her pupils and Caroline throws him out. Miserably isolated, she goes to dinner with Jilly and Ivor and meets Matthew who appears eminently suitable. But their ensuing affair is doomed by Matthew's persistent, precision fault-finding and Caroline realizes she can cope better with the slovenly, but kind-hearted, Kevin sprawling on her sofa. The plot is evolved in clever time-splitting sequences between the present and three years past. 


Suburban Strains centres on Caroline during a freezing winter, looking back on events from a summer three years ago. The play moves between past and present; to understand the story the past and present plotlines are presented separately here.

The Present

Ivor and Jilly, Caroline's friends discover her in her flat in a terrible state following her husband's (Kevin) departure. They invite her to dinner to cheer her up - and to allow her to meet Matthew, himself recently separated. She accepts. Miss Dent, deputy headmistress, comes round to console her, but ends up spilling the beans about her own unhappy past. Caroline visits Douglas, her father, in his tobacconist shop, and he exhorts her to "look on the bright side" while at the same time jangling on her nerves.

The day of the dinner arrives. Joanna and her Australian husband, Naylor, have also been invited, together with Matthew, a young doctor. Joanna and Caroline exchange bitchiness, but during the meal an attraction grows between Matthew and Caroline. Matthew takes Caroline home, and they discuss their estranged partners. They arrange to meet again. Their relationship develops.

Anne, the estranged wife of Matthew, arrives on Caroline's doorstep and warns her of what Matthew's really like. Caroline listens with half an ear, but when Matthew suggests they both go away for a weekend, she jumps at the chance. They go. Matthew's nagging tendency begins to come to the fore. On their return, Miss Dent warns Caroline that the relationship with Matthew, both of them still being married, is being frowned on by the school. Howard pops in to see Caroline and ask her out, but beats a hasty retreat when confronted by Matthew. It's now Christmas, and Matthew's nagging is much in evidence. They argue. Matthew goes for a walk to cool things down, but gives Caroline an ultimatum: when he returns she has to choose whether to open the door to him or leave it closed. If she does the latter, he will leave her for good. Caroline dithers. Then leaves the door closed. She lapses into the same state that she was in when Kevin left. Jilly and Ivor again arrive and console her. They tell her there's an old friend come to see her and leave. Previous people loom and pass, as, in her imagination she wonders who it is. It's Kevin. He's heard that Matthew's left. Caroline runs to him and....

The Past

Kevin, an actor, meets Caroline, a schoolteacher, regularly at the school gates. Their relationship grows into love and they become engaged. Linda, one of Caroline's pupils presents them with a book from her class. Kevin moves into Caroline's flat. They marry. At the reception, Joanna, an actress friend of Kevin's, causes a tense moment or two by talking of Kevin's past experiences, including herself. As time passes, Kevin seems a little restless and begins to niggle.

His "easy come, easy go" attitude grates on Caroline. Linda comes to the flat for extra tuition and surprises Caroline by declaring undying love for her. Caroline's nervously laughing reaction leads her to run out. Kevin and Caroline prepare to go to Ivor and Jilly's for dinner. There is a flaming row during which Linda calls to say she'll not be doing any further extra lessons. And it becomes apparent that Kevin is attracted to her.

They proceed to the meal to which Joanna has also been invited along with Howard, who's in soft furnishings. Kevin and Caroline arrive, and try to excuse their battered appearance (the results of their row). Kevin flirts with Joanna over dinner and Caroline retaliates by pouring soup over her. Kevin disappears to take her home, leaving Howard to take Caroline back to their flat. Caroline, rather drunk, makes a half-hearted effort to seduce Howard. He leaves. Kevin returns and things are almost patched up. Until, that is, one day Caroline comes home to find Kevin in bed with Linda. Kevin leaves the flat. (Chronologically, we now move to the "present" column).

Synopsis copyright: Alan Ayckbourn

The Cast:

M8, F7 (or M4 F3 with doubling)

Matthew / Mr Oatman
Jilly / Anne / Miss Dent / Milly
Ivor / Mr Grubland
Douglas / Naylor / Howard
Linda / Joanna

The Scene

A flat and several other simple settings

The Music: vocal score on hire only. There are no band parts available but in the original production keyboards, guitars, bass guitar and percussion were used

Libretto - ISBN 0573180288

The Alan Ayckbourn PlayGuide