Interview: Plays & Players (1975)

This interview was published in the September 1975 issue of Plays & Players magazine.

Scarborough Fare

by Michael Coveney

Alan Ayckbourn has provided the West End with ten plays, over the last eleven years. Although one,
Countdown was only very short (it appeared at the Comedy in 1969 on an entertainment bill generically titled Mixed Doubles) and three others (The Norman Conquests, still at the Globe [1]) are, as Ayckbourn himself half-blushingly admits, 'really one play', this still amounts to an impressive list of achievements. Feelings about Ayckbourn are pretty varied in both critical and public circles. The literary brigade, relieved at the refreshing simplicity of Ayckbourn's comic writing and impatient to proclaim the arrival of a modern-day Noël Coward, have declared him to be an unsung, underestimated genius whose plays prove that the old values of 'craft' and 'polish' still count for something. Others, more helpfully, have championed Ayckbourn as a devastating and gifted chronicler of suburban misery and frustration as lived after a period of pervasive materialistic fall-out. Increasingly his plays have gathered around the prospect of an unbearable pathos in shallow, domestic life, although not until the very latest play to be seen in London, Absent Friends, has that prospect been uncompromisingly and unsettlingly placed on the stage.

Ayckbourn is Artistic Director at the
Library Theatre, Scarborough, and all his plays are, in the first place, written for that venue. Since Absent Friends was seen there last year, Ayckbourn has completed two more plays: Confusions, a collection of five short pieces due to be brought to London early next year by Ayckbourn's regular West End producer, Michael Codron; and Bedroom Farce, which Peter Hall is to bring to the National next spring. [2] Already Ayckbourn has mentioned to Codron that another play is on the way, and that should reach London, all being well, later next year.

The Norman Conquests, which won many awards last year including Plays &Players, accolade as Best Play, was an inevitable and brilliant conclusion to a period of striking structural experimentation. In Relatively Speaking, the farcical developments of mistaken identity are the result of a simple misunderstanding: a young man turns up at a country house to introduce himself to (he thinks) his fiancée's parents. The 'parents' are no such thing, but the girl's ex-lover and his innocently fussing wife. How the Other Half Loves introduced us to two families of the sort that generally populate Ayckbourn's plays: one middle-class with signs of a loosening grip on that status, the other blatantly, pushily lower middle-class, full of decidedly 'nouveau' aspirations. Both homes were simultaneously represented on the stage, the two families mangling their social differentiation (and closer associations: both men work for the same firm, the pushy husband is having an affair with the 'superior' wife) in a showily mechanised stage action. An important innovation in Time and Time Again was the introduction of a whimsical, catalystic character and the growing feeling that the sunny sky of the garden scene was becoming ominously cloudy. Whimsicality, of which there is much in Time and Time Again and a certain amount in The Norman Conquests (the catalystic character in both instances being played by Tom Courtenay) is totally absent from Absurd Person Singular in which the scenario's bleakness (two of the wives are, respectively, alcoholic and suicidal) is relieved by the ingenuity of the plotting and the hilarious, unwitting breeziness of the male characters. Each act is set in a different location. In The Norman Conquests an entire weekend is experienced, over the three plays, from three different angles. Absent Friends brings an abrupt halt to this dizzily escalating show of technical prowess. 'Stage' time is almost the same as 'real time', the play revolving around a tea party organised for Colin, long absent and recently deprived of a girlfriend none of the others had met.

Plays & Players visited the playwright at his London home, half-expecting to walk in on a scene of domestic chaos featuring tipsy hypochondriacs, squash-playing salesmen and idiots fixing leaks, bulbs and personality crises. But no. Mr Ayckbourn, tall, polite and sporting a bright mustard yellow cardigan that he could have pinched from Paul in Absent Friends, proffered a mercifully uneventful cup of coffee and sat down. The telephone rang. A breathless girl on The Sunday Times wanted to know How to Get Rid of Bores at Parties. 'I burst balloons in their faces or, if all else fails, introduce the wife' obliged our subject, replacing the receiver while admitting that he hates parties and avoids them whenever possible. His two sons remained upstairs, asleep. Children never appear in Ayckbourn plays. Other evidence that Mr Ayckbourn's existence might be similar to that of his creations was hard to come by. No sign of a vomiting dog or a wailing grandmother; no sound of dropped crockery or squeaky back door. The writer's head moves about quickly as he talks, the eyes travel restlessly around the room pausing only for a communicative stare when the listener's response is achieved beyond all reasonable doubt.

Michael Coveney: After The Norman Conquests, do you imagine that the London audiences at Absent Friends are surprised to find you in so mellow and untechnical a mood?
Alan Ayckbourn:
One can go on for ever being a precocious juggler of shapes and patterns; I hope not too many people think that this time I've slipped up on the job of farcical comedy when that's not what I was aiming for at all. I've gone round all the jokes, deliberately stopped at points where, perhaps, one could have broadened into more obvious farce. I was trying to do something much more low-key. It seemed to me that, if I was going to progress as a dramatist, I must try and get more comedy from character and less from artificially induced situations. At the beginning of the second act of Living Together (the second of the 'Norman' tryptich) the whole action pulled up with a jolt and the family sat and talked and read magazines. I'd never done that sort of thing before, with people just sitting and talking about themselves. Writing it, I felt nothing was actually happening; and it was wonderful to get it onto the stage and find a response coming off the audience. So I went back to Scarborough and attempted to write something that would involve the audience in an afternoon. It's a marvellous ambience for doing that in that theatre, which is basically 'in the round'.

How does the production by Eric Thompson differ from that you directed in Scarborough?
This show is probably more different from the Scarborough version than any of the others has been. It's another way of seeing it, a totally valid way. In Scarborough we played it on an even lower level, much more slowly. Because of the intimacy of the theatre up there and the ability of the audience to lean in on the play, it became a sort of keyhole experience. The interplay among the actors was a joy to watch. Now, of course, in London, the proscenium arch makes it necessary to flatten out certain moments so that they come across the footlights.
In Scarborough, I was very nervous of the play on the first night. I said to the cast 'Look, I just don't know what's going to happen with this one; the audience may not laugh from beginning to end because, for the first time, we're deliberately asking them not to do so.' Anyway, we opened in June last year, which is Old Age Pensioners' Concessions-time. Most of the audience were therefore 80-plus. How would they take to all this business of an offstage death with onstage repercussions? I needn't have worried because, of course, older people are guaranteed to laugh at the topic of death before most of us for the simple reason that, by this time, they've got used to it. It was only when we got the slightly younger audiences in, the 36-year-olds hard at work on avoiding a heart attack, that we encountered any difficulty.

MC: What about the effect on the audience? Did Diana's hysterical outburst in the second act about always having wanted to be a Canadian Mounted Policewoman upset anyone?
It never came as a horrid shock because something had been bubbling towards that all evening. The tensions had been there and, in a sense, one is prepared for such events by the presence, in the middle, of the awful Colin slowly accelerating any imminent crisis with his platitudes and words of goodwill. Colin has gained this immunity through having been touched by tragedy. He's like a man you've always detested being suddenly struck with an incurable disease; as everyone knows he only has six months to live, gestures of courtesy and tolerance are offered when, in normal circumstances, a fourpenny one would have been forthcoming. Colin's immunity is something he doesn't really deserve.

Colin is now played by Richard Briers, his third Ayckbourn role. The essential star ingredient? [3]
Yes. It is a fact of life that managements will present very little, let alone new plays, in the West End without the security of a star or two in the cast. This is understandable. I am very lucky in that actors of the calibre of Tom Courtenay and Richard Briers seem to like doing my stuff and are always returning for more. And, if the truth be known, there are a limited number of actors capable of playing what I write really well. Briers is one of them, an actor who has got steadily more interesting as he's gone on. He has this terrific drive that comes from all those years of playing farce and light comedy. His subtleties are marvellous, and the change between this and his Absurd Person Singular performance is quite amazing. He is a great comic actor.
Less happily, a play can change out of all recognition simply because of the personality of an actor. This happened when Robert Morley played what is known as a walk-over (or roll-over) in
How the Other Half Loves. There was no way the other five characters were going to match up to that sort of performance. But when the play was released to the reps there were some very good productions done of it by companies who, mercifully, were not in possession of a Big Gun.

The Scarborough Library (Theatre), with no Big Guns, is obviously very important to you as a writer. Why is this, and how do the plays get written?
All I have when I start is the vague idea of a theme and the knowledge of the theatre I'm writing for. I know how many and what kind of actors I've got, so that dictates how many characters I write. I know what, ultimately, the play will say. But within that framework, anything can happen. And frequently does! It was quite on the cards that Diana could have died in the middle of the stage during Absent Friends. There was no conscious plan to The Norman Conquests; I had no idea how the weekend would develop, although I could see Norman's progression through it. The rest really just follow him. I usually write in longhand and then dictate on to a typewriter, so I actually 'speech' the play through. I tried an experiment in Confusions, the new play. The last of the five bits is a ten-minute piece designed to finish off the evening. I didn't write it down, but just ad-libbed it straight on to the typewriter. It was a weird experience and not something you could do with a bigger play.
I like small set-ups in the theatre, and Scarborough is still that. Administration can be a bit boring; I really like rehearsing and getting the shows on. Most of my actors stay a long time, which is nice. They come and go, but they always tend to be around. This lot have been together, more or less, since about 1973. Last winter we stopped being a three-monthly rep and became a nine-monthly company. But we had to go on tour because the Library's committee wanted the hall for a couple of months. People who wanted to book us wanted us to bring something of mine, but I hadn't got anything, having just sold
Absent Friends to Codron. [4] Then I recalled a sketch I had written for an entertainment presented in Horsham for a week by Oscar Quitak before it faded into oblivion (the show, Mixed Blessings, was intended as a sequel to Mixed Doubles). Being mean like most writers, I snatched the piece back and wrote four accompanying pieces specifically for the five actors I'd got in the company. The idea was to show off their talents (there are about 23 parts in all), and it was also a chance to work in the one-act medium. When Peter Hall mentioned writing something for the National I said (bearing in mind the recent, never-to-be-repeated Jeeves experience) that I must stick to what I know and the way I work in Scarborough. This strange, quirky way of commissioning my own plays and doing them almost as soon as they're written is a very luxurious way to work. And it seems to be working. I'm very lucky to have Scarborough.

You are obviously a practical man of the theatre. Was your interest sparked at Haileybury School?
I had two ambitions. One was to be a journalist, the other to be an actor. And, in the latter years at school, the second ambition started to take precedence. In any school, as in any big organisation, there's always one character who is nuts about the theatre. At Haileybury it was the French master, Edgar Matthews, who used to organise amazing productions that we took out on tour during the summer holidays. We toured a Shakespeare to America and Canada for a few weeks and then went to Holland, and this really took on the semblance of a nice-looking life. Mr Matthews used his one big contact, which was Wolfit, and got me a job with him as an Assistant Stage Manager. Which was cheap for Mr Wolfit and very interesting for me. This was in the mid and late '50s. From there I did the whole basic bit: rep at Worthing, running riot in the scenic and carpentry departments. At Leatherhead I was a more senior Stage Manager and started acting. I did a lot of acting there, actually, as Hazel Vincent Wallace used to use me in plays when she needed another actor and didn't want to pay for one. Thence to Scarborough, about which I knew nothing. I didn't even know where it was! As a Leatherhead season drew to a close somebody said there was some Stage Management work going in Scarborough, so three of us shot up there at once. (There's a sort of mafiosi in Stage Management. You rarely meet a good Stage Manager who's out of work; whereas, of course, lots of good actors are frequently out of work. I'm surprised more people aren't Stage Managers. It's wonderful - you just move from job to job.) All I did know about Scarborough was that it was a theatre 'in the round', and that sounded like a good racket as there wouldn't be too much scenery to move about. Stephen Joseph was running the theatre and the habit of writing, fitfully pursued to this point, was greatly encouraged; Joseph liked everyone in his theatre to be writing something or other.

Where do your characters come from?
I think everyone has important formative years which last until the age of about 16. During that period I was living in Sussex, cruising around with my bank manager step-father from branch to branch. I lived in those little Sussex towns like Lewes, Haywards Heath, Uckfield and so on; and we used to make regular trips to Brighton. And, at an even earlier time in my life, I lived in real suburbia - Staines and places like that. Even though I've lived the majority of my life in the north, those people have always remained with me. I would never write a northern comedy, although, of course, one does pick up material which is then translated back into the sort of background one experienced as a child. New material pours in, but it always goes into the filters and comes out in the same sort of setting. I shift around a bit.
The Norman Conquests are really classless failures, people of hovering status who have fallen a bit on hard times but who are really 'quite nice'; the other people I tend to write about are lower down the social belt (if one can say that). They're the 'tea in the front room' class of people lately promoted out of that into a vaguely monied status.

How much had you written before your big success with Relatively Speaking?
That was my eighth or ninth play. [5] There's a lot before Relatively Speaking, and I'm trying to destroy all known copies. I can see now that Relatively Speaking was a fairly deliberately devised play. When I was writing it, Stephen Joseph said (and it's a good tip that I always try to pass on) that there's absolutely no harm whatsoever, whatever you think of the state of the theatre and playwriting in general, to try and write one 'well-made' play; that is, a play that, in general terms, is fairly actor-proof, well-constructed and which works. If you want to break the rules of theatre, he said, its very useful to know what the rules are. Breaking them by accident can lead to all sorts of trouble later. Relatively Speaking is a little machine of a play. Character plays a fairly secondary role in it - everybody's too busy trying to find out what's going on and 'character' doesn't have a chance.
In the later plays, I have been finding darker things, like women having nervous breakdowns over tea. The characters aren't necessarily getting nastier, but I do feel that they're getting sadder. The difficult thing about comedy is not what you put in, but what you censor. I've always thought of comedies as tragedies that have been interrupted. It depends on what point in the cycle you start at. With
Absent Friends, if one had written about the courtship of Di by Paul it probably would have turned out to be quite a funny comedy. Funnier, anyway, than it is.

Most of the people in your plays who have children are obviously rotten parents.
I have a faint theory that parenthood is one of the most difficult jobs. Having had children myself at the age of 19, I look back with horror and relief to realise that, thanks to Nature and my wife, they have grown up with a fair proportion of reasonable tendencies. Most people aren't qualified to be parents because they're so busy trying to sort themselves out. Stability is good for children; but, then again, perhaps it's good for children to go through the emotions of their parents. I had a stepfather and an ordinary father and, as a result, quite a complicated childhood involving the most traumatic scenes of flying bowls of rice pudding and things. I was probably emotionally starved at the time, but now I rather value the fact that I was subjected to that.
So much can go wrong in a marriage. The worst kind of marriage is the one where second-best has been settled for, where no attempt is made to even approach the problems. That's awful. In
Absurd Person Singular, four of the characters are really trying to make things work and, in worrying, fall prey to the kind of people who would never consider doing that. I have great sympathy for people like Diana in Absent Friends, desperately trying to make a marriage work. The women in this latest play, in fact, are probably drawn more sympathetically than are the men. And that puts the record straight, because most plays about marriage tend to get written from the man's point of view.

Why was Jeeves so disastrous?
I was originally asked by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber to prepare a book, which I did. When I turned up with the synopsis, Rice, I discovered, had decided that he couldn't cope with the lyrics, so I got conned into doing them. Already the thing was becoming a bigger commitment than I had originally envisaged. I don't think I could ever collaborate with another writer, but I did find collaborating with a musician very stimulating. The book, however, was eventually running for four hours. I could have cut it in about a day in Scarborough circumstances. But with a vehicle like that, by the time one got round to cutting, it was like treading on eggs. Actors all had their numbers, the musicians had their favourite bits, and so on. The producer of
Jeeves I met twice as he spent most of his time in Los Angeles. We were all left to our own devices, which would have been all right if any of us had done this sort of show before. We badly needed Hal Prince, or someone like him. I did, however, develop a close working relationship with Lloyd Webber, which I hope might lead to something else, something conducted on our own terms. I was very impressed by Company which although a bit Manhatten-ish for English audiences, was undoubtedly something of a breakthrough. I'd like very much to try and write a commuter-belt musical with an original book.

You must be very wealthy by now. Do you enjoy your money?
They tell me I've earned a few pennies, but I never see it; I'm too busy working! Obviously it's nice not to go short. One serious advantage is that you can turn down work you don't want to do; you can also be grossly rude to American producers who buy your plays without any idea of how to do them. When Absurd Person Singular was being done in America, the producers even went so far as to suggest that it might be a better play if the acts were played in a different order! They became neurotic over the fact that the play turns dark in the last act. Glum messages would arrive reporting that 'the humour's going out of it, Alan'. They even sent me sheets of reamed paper strewn with details of 'The Belly-Laugh / Chuckle Count'. I was relieved to see that the belly-laugh count dropped significantly in the last act; and I thought of these two fat men with clipboards sitting in the audience and wondering whether that was a belly laugh or a big chuckle that just slipped by.

Do you think you will ever write a totally and intentionally unfunny play?
I don't think so. I want to write a comedy about loneliness which, in itself, is not funny. But the way I write tends to make such subjects funny, or at least makes them appear so. That is because one sees things from a certain angle. I think I'd be wrong to sit down and conscientiously try not to be funny. I don't write on the grimmest of social themes. I wouldn't, for instance, write about a multiple rail-crash. It would be in awfully bad taste, I suppose, if a disaster like that became fodder for a rollicking comedy. Joe Orton might have been able to do it, but I don't think anybody else can. I certainly can't. One tends to just keep on mining.

Website Notes:
[1] The Globe Theatre was later renamed The Gielgud Theatre.
[2]
Bedroom Farce would not actually open at the National Theatre until March 1977.
[3] Richard Briers had previously appeared in
Relatively Speaking and Absurd Person Singular in the West End.
[4] Michael Codron produced the vast majority of Alan Ayckbourn's plays in the West End between 1972 and 2001.
[5] Relatively Speaking was Alan's seventh professionally produced play; he had written a number of unproduced plays prior to that.

Copyright: Plays & Players. 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.