Interview: Plays & Players (September 1975)

This page reproduces some of Alan Ayckbourn's significant quotes from the interview.

Scarborough Fare

by Michael Coveney

"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."

"In Scarborough, I was very nervous of the play [
Absent Friends] 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."

"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."

"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!"

"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… I'm very lucky to have Scarborough."

"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 Donald 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.

"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."

"There's a lot [of plays] 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.

"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."

"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'. "

"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."