Interviews with Alan Ayckbourn

This interview by Robin Stringer was published in the Daily Telegraph on 30 August 1986. It was written just prior to Alan Ayckbourn takin g a two-year sabbatical from the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, Scarborough, to work at the National Theatre.

Ayckbourn: Man With A Woman In Mind

A new Alan Ayckbourn play opens in the West End next Wednesday. Nothing unusual in that, you might say. Rather the reverse.

After all, it is his 32nd and, like all his previous West End successes, was first seen at the
Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in Scarborough, where he has been Artistic Director for the past 14 years, "a hell of a long time", as he says, "and long enough to merit a break."

But to be prolific and popular is no crime nor should it be regarded as a sign of a lightweight. Ayckbourn, now a rotund 47, continues to peel back layer after layer of the protective coverings of our bourgeois way of life and expose with unerring and unnerving accuracy the reality beneath, the loneliness, the hopes and fears, pathos and bathos.

His latest play,
Woman in Mind, which he directs at the Vaudeville, delves yet deeper into the world of fraught, unfulfilled womanhood on the verge of breakdown so often explored in his plays with comic, if alarming, insight.

His heroine, Susan, escapes from her stale marriage and unrewarding existence into a fantasy world over which she reigns as a leading historical novelist adored by her family and feted by all. But the two worlds begin to merge.

After a first run-through, Julia Mckenzie, who plays Susan, was driven to remark. "It's like running the mile with no idea when you are going to finish". Not that Ayckbourn can frighten his audience away with remarks like that. It is the one thing at which he has never been successful.

But he is taking on a new challenge from next month, which marks a significant change in his long-established work pattern. Now on a two-year sabbatical from Scarborough, from where all his plays have evolved
[1], he is running a new group of actors at the National Theatre and has written a new play for them.

This is in itself a revolutionary departure because Ayckbourn is notorious for delivering scripts not a day before rehearsals begin.

One aim in writing
A Small Family Business, which will have its world premiere next May, has been "to conquer the wastes of the Olivier", a problem with which he is not unfamiliar, having directed his Sisterly Feelings and A Chorus of Disapproval, now at the Lyric Theatre, there. "I think I know the nature of the beast now", he declares.

He is not forthcoming about the subject-matter of the play - "A bit early for that", he frowns - but the action will take place on two floors. "I have never written a play with two floors before", he exclaims, like a child excited at the prospect of a new toy.

"Whatever else I am, I am a fairly good craftsman. If a chap is walking across the stage with the tea things. I tend to give him enough lines to get to the other side", he explains with characteristic modest understatement. "When it comes to distributing stage time, I know when half an hour has passed and when seemingly half an hour has passed".

Ayckbourn, a Londoner who left Haileybury at 17 to serve Sir Donald Wolfit his gin and guinness, was brought up in a hard school. "I remember doing a season with
Stephen Joseph with one wooden box as all the scenery for every play we did.

"In the end, the cast asked me as stage manager to intercede. 'The lads feel they have had the box', I told Stephen. 'You had better paint it then', he said. 'So I painted it red', is that it?' they said. 'Yes', I said It was bad enough for the actors but the audience came and they could not work out whether they had seen it before or not".

Besides his new play, Ayckbourn will be directing a farce,
Tons of Money, whose cast is led by Simon Cadell and Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge with Michael Gambon taking the main part.

Having identified four-week gaps in the rehearsal schedule, Ayckbourn is infilling by working on a platform show with composer Paul Todd and "something for Peter Gill in the studio".

He has picked his 20-strong company, some seven or eight of whom he has worked with at Scarborough, with care. "I tend to pick people who are a lot of laughs to work with. My attitude is that if rehearsals aren't fun, then what the hell are we doing. We take our performances very seriously and our rehearsals lightly".

A man of the theatre through and through, he has no desire to write for film or television. "There are few enough of us writing exclusively for the stage", he says. He remains as analytical of his own work as he is of the characters he creates, "shredded versions of people, genetic shake-ups".

Ayckbourn has fought hard for his present status. Scarborough, where as Artistic Director he was submitting his own plays to himself for approval, provided the foundation for that achievement.

"You can get very badly treated as a dramatist unless you take firm control of your affairs. If you do not fight for your commas, you find your sentences are gone."

For his pains, he has become a rich man. His plays are now translated into 24 languages and the royalties flow through the letter box. But work continues to bring him other rewards which matter more.

"There is something very pleasing about providing audiences with three levels of enjoyment in a play with content that is interesting both verbally and visually and in itself"

Website Notes:
[1] The majority of Alan Ayckbourn's plays have evolved in Scarborough, but between 1962 and 1964 he was based at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, where the plays
Christmas V Mastermind (1962) and Mr Whatnot (1963) were premiered.

Copyright: Daily Telegraph. This edited transcription and the end-notes have been compiled and researched by Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.