Interview: Birmingham Post (1977)

This interview was published in the Birmingham Post on 1 March 1977.

Scarborough Fare

by Judith Cook

Playwrights don't really come more successful than Alan Ayckbourn. In the last 11 years he's had 11 West End successes and at one stage five of his plays were running in London at the same time. [1]

Bedroom Farce is about to be presented by the National Theatre. "People had said to me that I'd set plays everywhere but in the bedroom and I got to think about them and became fascinated by what people do in bedrooms - I don't mean all that ho, ho, risque stuff, but the curious pastimes people take up. Just asking round my friends produced people who played Scrabble, elaborate quiz games, read all night or even in one instance, passed the time making furniture.

"Roughly, the plot deals with one couple whose marriage is on the point of break-up and its effect on other couples. By the end of it they are still together but it's had the most dreadful effect on everybody else. You know them, those people who have to endlessly tell you about their marital situation and ask for your advice. If you give it them they don't want to know but they just keep asking all the same."

Unlike most of today's playwrights, Ayckbourn's roots are solidly in the regions. He runs the repertory company at Scarborough, both writing and
directing plays there in the theatre for which he first wrote and in which every Ayckbourn play is produced before going elsewhere. [2]

"I'm lucky to have a ready-made theatre in which to work and I can commission myself and then direct myself." Isn't this dangerous, I asked? "Well obviously there are dangers inherent in it. It's a big responsibility but equally if you do make mistakes you know yery well that you've nobody to blame but yourself, you can blame either the direction or the acting because that's your responsibility too. I don't just direct my own plays; I encourage new playwrights by putting on their work too.

"I feel the need to direct, very strongly. I write one play a year and if all I did was write I know I'd get very bored. I'm not a very disciplined writer. I mean, I'm not one of those people who can get up and start prompt on 8am and write 500 words before lunch. I find it far more difficult than that and it gets worse as you get older and more established. You find yourself trying not to take the easy way out because you've learned so many theatrical tricks. When you don't, people say 'why didn't you do it like you did before?'"

In fact, his first West End production was slammed by the critics. Looking back now, from the vantage point of having won the Evening Standard, Plays and Players and Variety Club of Great Britain awards for best playwright, he can smile, "but it was a most traumatic experience, the play,
Mr Whatnot got massacred by the whole bunch of them and it stopped me dead from writing again for over 18 months. I don't believe those people who say they don't care about the notices. You. never have so much confidence in your own work that you can take massive criticism."

He loves living in Scarborough. "It's too big for a village and too small for a city and every summer it totally changes its nature as the holiday-makers flood in - it's the most stimulating, lovely place. Ours is a very small repertory company. Normally there are eight people, although sometimes we push it up to 12 and I have a kind of permanent company of actors who stay for quite a considerable time, then I bring in a couple of new ones each year so that the water doesn't get muddy.

"Working at the National Theatre is splendid - I'm directing with Peter Hall, which means he's sort of holding my hand - although it's odd when you've already directed a play once.
[3] I'm not one of those people who want to go round the country doing my Tempest or something here and there, I think it's uncreative, but having tried this play out in Scarborough there's bound to he a difference.

"I try and let actors find their own way into roles and it's difficult to see different actors trying to find theirs - you have to stop yourself giving them short cuts or telling them what worked successfully before. I'm glad I'm at the National anyway. It means my plays start in the subsidised theatre, go on to commercial management and then, in this case, return to the subsidised theatre again. Most of my plays do go back into the repertory theatres. I still believe in the well-constructed play and I think the real test is if it still works when the Little Bugworth Evening Institute have got hold of it and put it on.

"There is still, though, this belief that if it sounds easy to listen to it's somehow been easy to write, which is totally untrue. Good writing should look easy. It's not like making a chest of drawers where you can see the dovetailing and know it's been made by a craftsman."

Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests have both been seen in the USA and Absent Friends and Confusions are scheduled to open on Broadway later in the year. [4]

"I think almost the biggest gulf in the world in humour is between America and us. If we didn't speak the same language, we'd realise it far more. My plays have been translated into about 18 languages, yet they are more readily understood and found amusing in places like Mexico and even in the Iron Curtain countries than in America. It's a very tough divide. You have to work quite differently with American actors. Much American humour is the one-line crack, which they deliver superbly, whereas my humour builds up out of situations.

"Farces like
The Bed Before Yesterday come unstuck on Broadway although, in part, that's the fault of Equity who only allow the main stars to be British and you need a whole British cast to make it successful. It's when I go abroad that I feel so proud of our theatre and of our actors. Their standard is really so-high. Americans cast their films; superbly, down to the last bit part, but they haven't the theatrical range."

Another play
Just Between Ourselves will open later this year, by which time Ayckbourn will be back working in his theatre-in-the-round in Scarborough.

As a note for Midland theatregoers, he began his work in the theatre with
Stephen Joseph and Peter Cheeseman at Stoke-on-Trent. [5] "I'll always continue to write for Scarborough. Scarborough gives me the right to fail - and that's very important."

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] Since his first play,
The Square Cat, premiered at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1959, all but four of Alan's plays have premiered in Scarborough.
[3] Although Alan and Peter Hall are credited as co-directors, Peter Hall essentially absented himself from the process to direct
Volpone leaving Alan to direct Bedroom Farce.
[4] Neither
Absent Friends nor Confusions opened on Broadway in 1977. In fact, Absent Friends did not receive its Broadway premiere until 1991 and Confusions has only been seen Off-Broadway when Alan Ayckbourn took the Stephen Joseph Theatre company to the Brits Off Broadway festival with the play in 2016.
[5] Alan did not begin his work in the theatre in Stoke-on-Trent. His first professional role as an actor was at the Edinburgh Festival in 1955 and he worked in both Worthing and Leatherhead before moving to the Library Theatre in Scarborough in 1957. He did work at the Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent from 1962 to 1964.

Copyright: Birmingham Post. 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.