Interview: Standard Star (1979)

This interview was published in the Standard Star on 15 April 1979.

England's Comic Master

By Jacques le Sourd

Search no more for the funniest play on Broadway: It's
Bedroom Farce, the latest import from London and the most recent work to reach these shores by Alan Ayckbourn, an uncommonly prolific writer of comedies who previously unleashed tidal waves of laughter on the Great White Way with The Norman Conquests and Absurd Person Singular.

Bedroom Farce is set, not surprisingly, in bedrooms - three of them, on a single rather calamitous Saturday night. The three couples who are the rightful occupants of these chambers are plagued by a fourth couple, Trevor and Susannah, who are the sort of people who insist on foisting their marital discord on all their friends and relations. Meanwhile, those friends and relations struggle with little problems of their own. What ensues can best be described as very civilised, very British pandemonium. And marvellous fun.

The author of this inspired comedic mayhem is a 39-year-old Englishman who runs a theatre in Scarborough, about 300 miles from London, and who has written some 22 plays, 18 of which have been produced in Britain.

I met Ayckbourn for lunch on the day of the Broadway opening of
Bedroom Farce. An extremely shy man whose terror of big cities is legendary - one of his earliest plays was about a family living in a double-decker bus that had been stuck in a London traffic jam for 20 years [Standing Room Only] - he looked tense but composed, and almost jolly. "I'm naturally nervous in New York anyway," he said, "and since I always associate being in New York with opening a play, I'm doubly nervous."

Not the city but the suburbs of London - "that sort of no man's land where people live just outside the centre of activities" - are Ayckbourn's natural habitat. He grew up there, moving from one depressing flat to the next amid family discord. And he sets his plays there.

"I always think of my characters as living in a town like Reading, which is about 25 or 30 miles from London," he told me. "A really dreadful place. You go there and think - what happens in Reading? There's nothing there that could possibly inspire or encourage human life at all. Yrt people surviving there may well be having a ball!"

Though his humour is firmly lodged in one locale, Ayckbourn's plays travel well - they're translated into numerous languages, and produced everywhere.

"People loathe and love each other in all languages," he said. "Because I do deal with the primaries of life and death - the seven deadly sins come in quite a lot - the plays seem to have no particular boundaries. The things that have translated have been the human elements. I suppose I want less to dispense ideas than to dispense feelings, really understanding, towards people. Which I suppose is necessarily universal. My humour is not a matter of laughing at but laughing with or for people, saying, 'Oh God, I know how it feels.'"

Questions of nuance and language, on the other hand, sometimes do pose problems in the transfer abroad. Of the previous American productions of his plays, Ayckbourn said, "They've lost something in the translation."

Happily, the current Broadway production of
Bedroom Farce features actors from Britain's National Theatre Company, the original cast from the production Ayckbourn directed, in collaboration with Peter Hall, at the National. But Actors' Equity rules will soon require them to be replaced by American actors, so purists should hurry to the Atkinson before the changes are made.

To those who would accuse him of maintaining a narrow, provincial scope in his plays, Ayckbourn replies, "My belief is that there's nothing much that doesn't happen in the field that I explore; in fact, practically everything happens there that is important in human relationships. Of course, I don't include politicians making earth-shattering decisions in my plays. But
King Lear is a great play not because it's about a king but because it's a play about a man with daughters. One could write a domestic King Lear very easily, say about a proud old stockbroker."

Ayckbourn came to playwriting as an
actor. "Nobody was writing for me," he recalled, "so I sat down to write myself a play. It was quite successful, as was the next, and it wasn't till the third play that I realised that my writing was improving but my acting wasn't. There was only one flaw in my plays, which was that the leading man - me - wasn't really good enough to carry them. So I stood back, gave up acting, and settled down to be a director-writer, which is a much nicer occupation. You can actually see television in the evenings occasionally."

While working as a producer of radio dramas for the
BBC, Ayckbourn wrote plays for the summer seasons of a regional theatre-in-the-round in Scarborough. [1] Mr. Whatnot and Relatively Speaking were both optioned by London producers and mounted with great success in the West End. Then in 1967 Stephen Joseph, the founder of the Scarborough theater, died, and the theatre threatened to die with him. To save it Ayckbourn stepped in as producing director, and he has been there ever since. [2]

The playhouse [
Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round] has a permanent company of eight actors, most in their early 30s.

"Scarborough does about 10 main-house plays and maybe another 10 small fringe productions - bar, lunchtime and late-night shows - each year," Ayckbourn said. "We've always been new-play oriented, and we do about 60 per cent new work. But because we're the only theatre in town we have to provide some sort of balanced diet, so we try to do the best of modern plays, a few classics and the rest is the usual sort of catholic mixture."

The mix, of course, always includes at least one new play by Alan Ayckbourn. "I'm a working dramatist," he says proudly. "I run a theatre, and for 51 weeks of the year I'm really directing and administering and working out the laundry lists for the theatre. It's small enough that I have to do all that, and I like it. I want to write plays that interest my actors - who are often working there for a much lower salary than they could get in television. I want to give them something rewarding to do, and at the same time I've got to keep my audience interested, and keep them coming in. I can't afford empty theatres. That's my immediate concern."

Ayckbourn usually finds himself writing against a strict deadline, and he is famous for his speed: "I'm lucky that I write - when I actually write - very fast," he said. "It takes me about a year to get a play together, but for 48 weeks at that year I can carry on working normally. Then I take a month off, and for three weeks I unwind - or is it coil up? - and then I write the whole thing in a week. Then I go straight into the direction. So between the time of first writing and the opening night in Scarborough, not more than five weeks have elapsed."

Though most of his plays ultimately get large-scale commercial productions in London and some move on to New York, Ayckbourn said, "I try to limit my horizon to the little theatre I'm working in, in Scarborough, because I think if you start to worry about what The New York Times will think about your work before you've written it, you're not going to be able to write a word!"

Website Notes:
[1] Alan actually began his professional writing career at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, with
The Square Cat in 1959. His first four plays were written whilst working there with his next two written whilst working at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent from 1962 - 1964. He joined the BBC as a Radio Drama Producer in 1965 working there until 1970; during this period he wrote Relatively Speaking as well as several other plays as well as, surreptitiously, becoming Director of Productions of the Library Theatre from 1969 - 1970.
[2] Although Alan was involved with the Library Theatre following Stephen's death in 1967, he did not actually take on the seasonal role of Director Of Productions until 1969. He was appointed Artistic Director of the company in 1972.

Copyright: Standard Star. 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.