Interview: The Scotsman (1979)

This interview was published in The Scotsman on 24 February 1979.

A Play On Time

by William Foster

One of the most dreadful plays ever to open in London was something called
Mates, starring Britt Ekland. One critic said it was so bad that it ought to carry a Government health warning, like a packet of cigarettes. It lasted only a few days and then sputtered out, leaving the Comedy Theatre dark.

This gave Alan Ayckbourn his chance. "You don't often-find a theatre conveniently empty in London," he told me, in between rehearsals of his new play,
Joking Apart. After rehearsing at the Comedy, it will open at the Globe on Shaftesbury Avenue on March 7.

Ayckbourn was eating an omelet in a nearby restaurant at five in the afternoon, surrounded by the cast of
Joking Apart. He is the director as well as the author of Joking Apart, "and the play began," he said, "when I suddenly woke up to the fact that my eldest son was 18, able to vote and old enough to drive me about in his own car. I suddenly caught up with the passage of time. I'm 39. It's quite a shock. And it made me write a different play, set over 12 years instead of on my usual very limited time scale. I'm trying to show what time does to people just by passing."

The play is published just before it opens as
Joking Apart and Two Other Plays, the others being Just Between Ourselves and Ten Times Table. A quick investigation of Joking Apart shows it is about a couple called Richard, and Anthea who are totally perfect.

" They're perfect," said Ayckbourn, "because they have wonderful kids, they manage to buy a house in the country for an absolute song and they always know a little man round the corner who can do a repair job. But having created such paragons, I wanted to know what effect they would have on other characters." The short answer, as this is an Ayckbourn play, is that they totally ruin the lives of their nearest and dearest. The play is shot through with irony and the feeling that teeth are being gritted and nerves shredded to a pulp.

This play, like so many otters, had Its first airing in Scarborough, where Ayckbourn runs a 30-strong theatrical company for most of the year. Since its opening a year ago,
Joking Apart has played in Richmond, Surrey, where Ayckbourn hovered over it, cosseted it and altered a move or a lighting cue fractionally.

He prefers to work like this, in the stress and heat of theatre workshop, rather than in the padded atmosphere of the West End. And with
Joking Apart now taking wings, he has already staged its successor, Sisterly Feelings, in the converted school building in Scarborough that serves as Ayckbourn's theatre.

"I always put my new play on at this time of year because the theatre goes through a bit of a lean patch in the cold weather and it helps the box-office. I've now had 22 plays produced but I don't enjoy writing them."

He has to force himself to go through the horrid process by announcing the date it will open in Scarborough long before anything is written apart from the title. Posters are printed, tickets sold and the cast engaged. Three or four days before the opening rehearsal, Ayckbourn holes up, hangs a "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door of his room and writes steadily through the night. He has never been late with the finished play.

"I've usually spent three weeks brooding about it before I start writing. Then I write fast. But I'm finding it harder and harder. I know in advance the mistakes I can make and a great many avenues are closed to me because I've been down them before. I prefer working with my own permanent company. I don't have to spend time sussing out my actors and finding out if they expect to be coaxed along, bullied or simply left alone."

And he likes the off-the-cuff comments of a down-to-earth Yorkshire audience. When
How the Other Half Loves was staged, where the joke is to share the same room set between two different families, he heard someone say: "What a pity they have to economise on the scenery."

Bedroom Farce a warring couple is shown, busily disrupting the marriages of others. A Scarborough woman shrewdly commented: "I wouldn't have laughed so much if I'd realised what I was laughing at." Ayckbourn liked that. It showed that someone had got his thinly-disguised message about the well-bred horrors of middle-class marriage, the scream of pain bottled up in a cut-glass decanter.

He writes as he does, he says, because he was himself catapulted into the doomed middle classes. When his father, a violinist in the London Symphony Orchestra, died, his mother married a Barclays Bank manager.

"So I spent the rest of my childhood in Sussex, moving from one bank flat to the next." And the characters who passed through the flat now haunt the Ayckbourn theatre - pompous, loud of mouth and covering up their inadequacies with cliches.

"I don't pry at people through keyholes. But I've been to plenty of dinner parties where the host and hostess are dying for you to go home so that they can really kill each other. Sometimes they get a bit twitchy when they realise I'm sitting there drinking it all in."

Copyright: The Scotsman. 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.