When children are seen and not heard, it’s easy to forget how much seeing and hearing they themselves are doing. Take Winnie Barnstairs, the almost-9-year-old sponge at the center of Alan Ayckbourn’s affectionate and fitfully charming farce My Wonderful Day.
Winnie (Ayesha Antoine), who’s laboring to finish the titular school essay, gets a huge boost in terms of material when her massively pregnant mother (Petra Letang), a cleaning woman, drags her along to the home of a client. Mum eventually gets whisked off to the hospital, forcing Winnie to interact with the philandering man of the house (Terence Booth), along with his cloddish pal (Paul Kemp), his bit on the side (Ruth Gibson), and his ill-tempered wife (Alexandra Mathie).
Ayckbourn, who also directed, has contrived to infantilize all four of these adults in Winnie’s presence: One falls asleep while being read to, two resort to odious baby talk, one has a series of temper tantrums. But as these characters come and go, the scaffolding of Ayckbourn’s plot becomes—by his lofty standards —rather forced. And while the somber, gentle, slightly weird Winnie (played with exquisite reticence and patience by the 28-year-old Antoine) offers a welcome break from the precociously glib adolescents-in-jumpers that typically pass for stage children, a device in which she claims to speak only French reads as still another flimsy excuse to cede the floor to the adults.
Only at the end, when Winnie offers a peek of her essay (and right before the loveliest curtain call in town), do we realize just how observant she has been, how attuned her nerve receptors were to the baffling and chaotic and sad events swirling over her smallish head. To be honest, Winnie’s “My Wonderful Day” is even more insightful than Ayckbourn’s My Wonderful Day. But only a little bit.