Interview: Manchester Evening News (1976)

This interview was published in the Manchester Evening News on 19 August 1976.

The Conquests Of Alan Ayckbourn

by Alan Hulme

To describe Alan Ayckbourn as a phenomenon is the current understatement of the British Theatre. His plays - so far he's written 20 - are performed nightly in 16 languages throughout the world. Recently five Ayckbourn plays ran simultaneously in the West End. Two more are in the London pipeline and he's due to wrest another from his imagination in the next few weeks. [1]

This 37-year-old Scarborough-based play machine - his biggest hits are written in less than a week of concentrated effort - has also become the saviour of rep throughout the country.

It's claimed there isn't one rep that won't perform an Ayckbourn work this season. And many are doing three, in the form of his award winning trilogy,
The Norman Conquests - taking up an unprecendented nine weeks of the Wythenshawe Forum's autumn season.

Despite his unique success he remains unassuming, almost incredulous about his achievements, yet at the same time taking a schoolboy glee in talking about them.

He could return to his native London for ritual lionising, but prefers the Scarborough connection, where he is director of productions for the cramped 200-seat
Library Theatre In The Round.

There he writes and
directs his own work for the holidaymakers and landladies to pass their pre-West End judgment and for relaxation plays the pinball machines in the sea-front arcades. Ayckbourn heard about Scarborough when he was an assistant stage manager at Leatherhead. "In The Round sounded damn funny to me," he recalled. "But when I got there it was the most exciting thing... I'd ever seen."

But it was while at Stoke a couple of years later that he wrote
Mr Whatnot, the first work to he taken up by the West End. [2] It flopped disastrously, but on the strength of the London opening Ayckbourn had already left Stoke for London and found himself penniless. He became a drama producer for the BBC in Leeds and wrote a play for Scarborough called Meet My Father.

"I hurled it onto paper in less than a week and kept away from rehearsals," Ayckbourn said with a smile. "I wasn't pleased with it." Retitled
Relatively Speaking, it was his first hit.

He started to provide Scarborough with a play a year, some of which have sunk without trace. Does he know when he is writing another success?

"I can tell one thing," he said, thoughtfully, "I know how popular theyy will be from the ingredients in them. Like it hasn't a happy ending, or the bad guys win. I'm not really in control these days of how they turn out. I just sit down and write. My plays are getting darker and, from my point of view, better. But Scarborough always pulls at my coat tails. I think, there's 300 pensioners in next week and I've got to give them something to enjoy."

His plays have been criticised for being middle-class, clever but not-deep.

"What I'm trying to do," He says, "is raise the level of popular entertainment. There is so much rubbish about, and I'm trying not to insult people's intelligence. I don't write for the lower-middle class, that just seems to be the area where I get most recognition."

As the only major playwright constantly turning out a stream of popular successes, theatres depend on him almost as much as the GCE Shakespeare. "Yes," he admits, "that does worry me. But of course I'm also awfully pleased."

The Norman Conquests is unlike anything else. These three plays, involving the same characters, "happen simultaneously and could, in theory, be presented on three stages at the same time, characters all coming and going between each on their right cues. [3] It's a tour de force never attempted before and unlikely to be repeated. " The idea just came off the top of my head," he says modestly. "I quickly realised that with a trilogy I couldn't expect holidaymakers to come three times, so each play would have to stand on its own and it wouldn't have to matter what order they were seen in."

How did he ever, manage to plot such a complicated concept?
"I wrote them across," he revealed. "The first scene of each, then the second, and so on. Downward, I worked on auto-pilot."

London managements made offers, for the three plays individually, but none had the courage to put them on as a trilogy, so, eventually Ayckbourn, a director he had worked with before [Eric Thompson], and Tom Courtenay, staged them themselves at out-of-town Greenwich.

They opened to rave notices and managements then fell over themselves to outbid each other for the West End transfer.
[4]

Howard Lloyd-Lewis, the director of
The Norman Conquests at Wythenshawe, hopes to present the whole trilogy on one gala day, a feat only attempted once before, at the Greenwich try-out. [5]

Despite his phenomenal speed, Ayckbourn hates writing. "It's an absolute nightmare," he confides, pulling a wry face. "But the urge to write gets stronger. The more you do, the more you won't settle for second best."

Now Ayckbourn is busy planning the new theatre that will eventually replace the historic room above the reference library and he still has hopes of collaborating on a musical with Andrew (
Jesus Christ Superstar) Lloyd Webber. [6]

Website Notes:
[1] In 1975, Alan Ayckbourn had
Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests trilogy and Absent Friends running simultaneously in the West End.
[2] Alan was a founding member of the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, set up by Stephen Joseph as the first purse built theatre-in-the-round venue in the UK. He was with the company from 1962 to 1964.
[3]
The Norman Conquests can't actually be performed simultaneously with the cast moving between the three plays as their time-scales don't match up. Although certain scenes do run - more or less - simultaneously, a number of the three plays' scenes do not cross-connect unlike, for example, House & Garden which was written specifically to be performed simultaneously with one company moving between two theatre-spaces.
[4] This is not entirely accurate. Alan's regular West End producer brought both
Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests into the West End; whilst he was not convinced The Norman Conquests would work as a trilogy in the West End, he clandestinely helped fund the production at the Greenwich Theatre on the proviso he had first refusal for the West End transfer should it proof popular. Whilst there was huge subsequent interest from producers to transfer the trilogy into the West End, it was Codron who took it in.
[5] This is untrue. The entire trilogy was performed in one day both during its world premiere run at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, at the Greenwich Theatre and at the Globe Theatre.
[6] This should read 'a new musical' as Alan had previously worked with Lloyd Webber on the flop musical
Jeeves.

Copyright: Manchester Evening News. 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.