Interview: Over 21 (1978)

This interview was published in the August 1978 edition of Over 21 magazine.

Ayckbourn: On Men And Women

by Paul Vallely

Alan Ayckbourn is a shy man. But the sense of humour which has helped to make him one of Britain's most successful, popular and wealthy dramatists shines through his diffidence. Even into his everyday life.

THE SCENE: an accountant's office in the heart of the City. The ACCOUNTANT sits at his desk.
ENTER a large, shambling, somewhat overweight playwright going thin on top and dressed with the casual respectability of one of his own rather proper, rather endearingly absurd characters. He is ALAN AYCKBOURN, a quiet man, reticent to the point of seeming embarrassed at having even to talk to anyone a difficulty he overcomes with a quiet line in ironic humour. He is 39 but, like most of his characters, looks ten years older.

ACCOUNTANT: Morning Alan.
(The PLAYWRIGHT shuffles nervously and screws his face slightly as if summoning up the courage to speak.)

ACCOUNTANT: How's things then?
AYCKBOURN: Well. I've got a play just opened in the West End.
ACCOUNTANT: What! Another'! That's five!
A YCKBOURN: (apologetically) Yes.
ACCOUNTANT: How's it doing?
AYCKBOURN: Well... er... I'm afraid it's doing... er... rather well. Actually.
ACCOUNTANT: Oh dear, oh dear.

Nobody. Alan Ayckbourn maintains with his tongue only partially in his cheek, was more pleased with the disastrous failure of the musical
Jeeves which he wrote with Andrew Lloyd Webber (of Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar fame) than that accountant. But now, risking the wrath of that important man, Ayckbourn, with 22 plays to his credit, is having another go at snaring the most elusive of theatrical creatures - a successful British musical. Only this time the budget is not a spectacular £50,000 but a mere £5 and the venue not Shaftesbury Avenue but the bar of Scarborough's Theatre-in-the-Round, where all his money-spinning comedies began their glittering international careers.

It is early days yet for the recently opened
Men on Women on Men as the new venture which runs until September, is intriguingly titled and Ayckbourn is modest about the achievement.

"It's a small scale thing. We aren't spending much on it. I haven't any visions of it transferring to the West End," he says. But then the Hampstead-born writer admits that he never visualises his work for anything other than the small Scarborough theatre which has been his adopted home for the past 21 years. And the result of that approach has been a consistent string of successes which have become celebrated in 26 different countries as hilarious and penetrating studies of the foibles and inadequacies of the ordinary man in the bar the world over.

"If they transfer to the West End or sell in South America or Russia all well and good. But I never think about that in advance. I just write bearing in mind the limitations that a small theatre, a limited number of actors and a budget create."

Men on Women on Men starts from the opposite pole to the ill-starred Wodehouse spectacular. It is a revue consisting of a series of songs - dramatic monologues which explore various man / woman relationships without the encumbrance of plot. It stars four not-very-famous actors drawn from Ayckbourn's main company with music by the equally-unknown Paul Todd. And, unlike the unwieldy Jeeves, it shows every sign of altering, improving and mellowing considerably in the course of its two month run. All in all the manner of its gestation and birth displays most of the hallmarks of an incipient Ayckbourn success.

By any standards those hallmarks are pretty odd. Ayckbourn's technique is to mull over the characters, devices and themes of his next play for some 360 days of the year. Towards the end of that time he chooses the date it will open at his 308-seat theatre. Then, so that posters and tickets can be printed, he chooses a title, which explains why the titles - like
Relatively Speaking, Just Between Ourselves, Time and Time Again, How The Other Half Loves, Absurd Person Singular, and Joking Apart are catchy enough in themselves but often hard to match up with the play to which they belong. Then he chooses a cast from the theatre's resident company which accords both with the rough ideas he has on what characters the play will demand and, more importantly, what his budget will allow.

Only three or four days before the first rehearsal does he sit down and square up to the ordeal of writing.
The Norman Conquests took seven days but then that was a trilogy and surely a rather solemn format for a comedy writer to tackle?

"Ah yes, well, it happened because a young reporter from the local paper once asked at the end of a season what I was doing next and I said I was doing a trilogy because I couldn't think of anything else to say. Then, months later, at the start of the new season there it was: 'Local Playwright Writes Trilogy'. The theatre manager rang me and asked if he should issue a statement denying it. But I thought I might as well have a go. I wrote all three plays at once: first three scene Is, then three scene 2s. It wasn't as difficult as I'd imagined."

Once he has started writing he works solidly through the day and night, refusing to answer the phone or door, speaking to no-one, pausing only to snatch the odd hour of sleep. The final copies of the script are hurriedly duplicated and pushed through the actors' letter boxes the night before rehearsals start. Amazingly, he's never yet been late or barren.

When he tells you this you understand why, though he chunters on about having to earn £5½m to be able to take home £100,000, he could never consider the attractions of a tax haven.

"I suppose that sort of thing would be alright if you were a novelist and could sit in the sun churning out best sellers. But it's different when you're involved in the actual process of putting your work across to people. I suppose I'm lucky enough in always having known, being the director of a theatre, that what I wrote would be put on. I haven't earned enough to be able to retire. I have to keep writing. And directing."

So much in Ayckbourn's work, particularly in his more acrid later plays, is founded in his perceptive humourist's observation of the people around him that, in any case, one suspects a move into tax exile would cut off his supply of raw material.

"Mostly my characters are amalgams of various people I've known. Occasionally I am tempted to drop characters in whole. But you can go too far." There-was one particularly embarrassing incident connected with
Ten Times Table (currently in the West End) in which he had included a fairly libellous portrait of a local councillor. "The sort of man who queries every comma in the minutes and drags the meeting on and on. There's one on every committee. I was a little bit cocky and thought no-one would recognise him. But on the first night by the interval they were nudging each other in the bar and saying 'Do you recognise old soandso?" And this chap was sitting in the front row."

Fortunately the man turned out to be quite flattered, went and saw the play several times and when the London production was announced was sufficiently proprietorial of the character to approach the trembling Ayckbourn and ask : "Who'll be playing me, then?"

This sort of intimacy has provided Ayckbourn with the wealth of experience on which is based his success as our leading comic dramatist some would even say one of our leading serious dramatists in disguise. He and Webber still have another major musical tucked far up their sleeves.
[1] But work will not begin on that until Scarborough has done its stuff on the £5 reply to the £50,000 flop.

Website Notes:
[1] Although Alan Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber expressed interest in working together again following
Jeeves, it would not be until 1996 when they rewrote Jeeves as the far more successful musical By Jeeves.

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.