Interview: Over 21 (1976)

This interview was published in the May edition of Over 21 magazine.

Going Out

by Shirley Green

Alan Ayckbourn is something of a phenomenon in the British theatre. In 1973, his Absurd Person Singular won the Evening Standard Award for the Best Comedy; in 1974, The Norman Conquests won ditto, plus the Variety Club Award plus the Plays and Players' Award for the Best Play; in 1975, his Absent Friends opened to rave reviews in London while The Norman Conquests conquered Clive Barnes and New York simultaneously (ie, for once, the audience knew they were seeing something funny instead of waiting to be told). Meantime, his plays are stock-piled for years ahead, giving the impression of a prolific genius who dashes off comedies as confidently as Oscar Wilde coined epigrams.

Yet in reality, the impression is of a gentle, almost diffident man, who could be a teacher in some prep school. Even the steady stream of writing turns out to be a form of defence mechanism. "The only time I had a play on and nothing in the pipeline was with
Mr Whatnot, my very first production. [1] It wasn't too successful, and I was so absolutely shaken, so utterly discouraged, that I didn't write again for three years. [2] At least now, well, if Confusions is a disaster I can always say: 'It's a very old play' and excuse it that way."

It will, of course, be a howling success, because Ayckbourn has the knack (almost unique since Shakespeare) of pleasing everybody, from the Kiss-Me-Quick holiday makers who first see his plays at the Scarborough
Library Theatre, where he's Artistic Director, to the sophisticated Londoners who see them about two years later.

It's a working arrangement that suits him perfectly. "Although I brood a lot over a play, I find the actual writing very, very depressing, and get it over in five or six days, writing butt up to rehearsals. But then the
directing, which is a direct extension of the writing, means I continue to develop, well, discover the characters as I go along. I don't mean that I re-write but I work out the stage directions: all the moves around the table in Table Manners, for instance, were plotted at Scarborough. By the time my plays arrive in London, technically at any rate, they're already in good shape."

He seems genuinely amazed that
The Norman Conquests is packing them in on Broadway. "I just don't know how we managed it. They like Neil Simon-type brilliant wisecracks - whereas I - well, most of my plays are entirely devoid of gags. If any of my characters tell a joke, they tell it badly, because people do tell jokes badly."

And yet for all the lack of lacerating wit, Ayckbourn's gentle humour has audiences doubled up with laughter, which must make dinner party engagements something of a trial. "I imagine I must be a disappointment," he admits. "I'm afraid I'm one of those people who's a bit like everyone else. I think of the marvellous remark about 25 minutes after the person's left the room."

That Alan Ayckbourn is a bit like everyone else is something of a miracle, because he went straight from school into the artificial world of the theatre. So how has he remained so rooted in normality, so obviously loving the ordinariness of people in a totally unpatronising way? "I suppose because my childhood was fairly ordinary," he suggests. "My father was a provincial bank manager in Sussex. And a lot of the - well, I always think a lot of the stuff you're going to write about happens before you're ten years old. The rest of the time you're topping up."

Ayckbourn's topping up must include the fact that he married at 19 and has two teenage sons; also the fact that, as someone told him recently, Scarborough is a very "untheatrical" company. "And it is," he agrees. "Now we've extended the season to nine months of the year, we've bought houses and people live with their wives and families instead of out of each other's pockets. It's the only way to survive. But really - my God - we are a company full of people clipping the suburban hedges and making book-shelves. It's quite nice really."

Nice, but never smug. Ayckbourn is seriously worried about how London will take to
Confusions, which is an evening of five one-act plays. But then he was even more worried about The Norman Conquests. "A lot of people assume I get an automatic dual-carriageway straight from Scarborough to the West End. But nobody wanted The Norman Conquests - producers were prepared to do one of the plays but not the trilogy. So in the end we did all three at Greenwich. Then came the wonderful press reaction - and then the stamping of tiny managerial feet."

Meantime, the man who could have Broadway at his feet trails around the south-west seeing what audiences make of Scarborough's touring production of
Just Between Ourselves. (A play London won't see till 1977, though the National Theatre company will be doing his Bedroom Farce in November of this year. [3]) Why didn't he go to, New York for the ritual lionising at Sardi's? [4]

"I'm not greatly happy in New York," he says, almost apologetically. "You've either got a metabolism that rises to the 'this-is-where-it's-at' feeling or... well... I always sort of cringe and hide."

Website Notes:
[1] This refers to his first West End production rather than his first professional play,
The Square Cat. Following the disastrous reception to the West End production of Mr Whatnot, Alan Ayckbourn considered giving up playwriting for good and joined the BBC as a Radio Drama Producer.
[2] Alan has a bit of narrative license here. He wrote
Mr Whatnot in October 1963 and saw it produced in the West End in August 1964. His misgivings about his playwriting career lasted just several months though as he was commissioned to write Relatively Speaking for Scarborough in October 1964, although he did not actually write the play until May 1965. There was no more than19 months between writing Mr Whatnot and Relatively Speaking.
[3] In actual fact
Bedroom Farce opened at the NT within weeks of Just Between Ourselves in March 1977.
[4] Sardi's is a restaurant in New York located on Broadway and noted for its many artist caricatures of stage and screen actors as well as its popularity with the theatre district.

Copyright: Over 21. 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.