Interview: The Scotsman (1975)

This interview was published in The Scotsman on 24 May 1975.

Comedy Of Manners

by William Foster

Jeeves, the musical based on the P. G. Wodehouse character, is still running in the West End. It almost seemed at one moment as if this expensive confection, scripted by Alan Ayckbourn, would come off after a few mights. The reviews were so dreadful, said one inveterate first-nighter, that they ought to set them to music and play them at the Day of Judgment.

They are almost the first bad reviews Alan Ayckbourn has had since he began writing plays. He came in as lyricist to Andrew Lloyd Webber's tunes because his original partner, Tim Rice, backed out - Rice and Lloyd Webber being the two young men who wrote
Jesus Christ Superstar.

"I had no illusions about the' difficulties," says Ayckbourn. "Other people have failed to adapt Wodehouse successfully, simply because Jeeves is a very evasive gentleman. I mean, who the hell is Jeeves?"

Ayckbourn is only 35 and already has four comedies running simultaneously in the West End, an achievement unheard of since the palmy days of Noël Coward and Somerset Maugham. He has an enormous forehead, a jerky way of talking and a firm determination not to let success down south part him from Scarborough, where it all began.

As director of productions
[1] at Scarborough's little Library Theatre, he tries out his new plays there first. "In fact, it goes deeper than that," he explains. "It's a theatre-in-the-round with the audience on all four sides of the stage and no scenery."

So a big success like
Absurd Person Singular, which seems tailor-made for the traditional proscenium arch, must be flawlessly written if it is to impress an audience of holidaymakers, who never normally go to the theatre, seated within touching distance of the actors.

But the characters in his plays are middle-class, Home Counties English, rather than broad Yorkshire types, covering up their inadequacies with their cliches and their over-loud voices. The funniest scene in
Absurd Person Singular occurs when one of the characters keeps trying to commit suicide and nobody else on stage even notices.

Ayckbourn thinks he writes as he does because he was himself catapulted into the doomed middle classes. His mother was a successful short story writer for women's magazines, his father a violinist in the London Symphony Orchestra.

When his father died, his mother married a Barclays Bank manager. "I spent the rest of my childhood in Sussex, moving from one bank flat to the next" And the characters who passed through the flat now haunt Ayckbourn's theatre, self-justifying, a bit pompous and rather, pathetic.

"One or two critics get a bit upset by my stuff because they think it pokes fun at the best of human nature. But I'm really showing how sad it is that people can try to be nice and it sometimes doesn't work. I'm saying that a lot of the worst things that happen in life are the result of well-meaning actions."

Ayckbourn's own career has been reasonably well-meaning. Already mad about the theatre at his English public school, he then got a job with Sir Donald Wolfit's company at the 1956 Edinburgh Festival.

"He was looking for someone cheap at £3 a week. I played a sentry. He employed me because I'd been in the cadet force and could be guaranteed not to faint for 40 minutes on parade. So I stood there and watched him act every night, sometimes cursing the audience when he had his back to them. I thought all actors were like that."

He did the usual round of jobs in repertory companies, never out of work because he never said no to anything. He fetched up at Scarborough 17 years ago, wrote a play called
Mr Whatnot that was torn to pieces by the critics when it went to London, and then put together his first two hits, Relatively Speaking and How The Other Half Loves, when working for the BBC. [2]

"The BBC was a sort of hospital ward for the shell-shocked. You learned to examine your craft because you had to tell other writers what needed changing and what wouldn't work. I couldn't have found a better hole." He says he wrote
The Norman Conquests, just published in book form by Chatto & Windus at £3, because he does not like actors getting stale on a long run. The whole thing forms a trilogy of three plays, Table Manners, Living Together and Round and Round the Garden, which are staged on different evenings through the week at London's Globe Theatre [3], but deal with the same weekend in different parts of the same house.

The idea works to perfection and all the actors have marvel-ous parts. Ayckbourn says he hated being a postman or something, trudging on to deliver a letter and then disappearing altogether. "And it's part of being a good technician to be able to write plays where actors don't sit around with nothing to do."

They like their money's worth, the Scarborough holiday-makers, which is where Ayckbourn's technical skill came from. But the holidaymaker himself is a figure of fun, getting locked out of his digs, losing the bus station.

"Civic occasions are best of all. Vases of flowers collapse, the Mayor's tent nearly gets blown away and it rains and rains. I go every year, just for the humour of it."

Website Notes:
[1] At this point, Alan Ayckbourn had been appointed the Artistic Director of the Library Theatre; he had been the Director of Productions during 1969 and 1970, but that seasonally-appointed role was made redundant when Alan was appointed Artistic Director in 1972.
[2] This is a rather truncated and not particularly summary of Alan's career to that point. He had joined the Library Theatre as an Acting ASM in 1957 - 18 years earlier - where his first play was produced in 1959.
Mr Whatnot was actually his sixth play to be professionally produced by the Scarborough company and his first to transfer to the West End. Although he worked at the BBC from 1965 to 1970, his plays Relatively Speaking and How The Other Half Loves we're written for and premiered at the Library Theatre before their West End transfers.
[3] The Globe Theatre was later renamed The Gielgud Theatre.

Copyright: The Scotsman. 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.