Interview: Yorkshire Post (1980)

This article was published in the Yorkshire Post on 15 January 1980.

Strains To New Effect

by Clare Jenkins

When Alan Ayckbourn presented his upstairs, downstairs, in my lady's chamber farce
Taking Steps at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in November, I assumed, wrongly, as it happily happens, that it was his annual winter theatrical doctor's prescription for laughter.

In past winters we have waited patiently for the new play to be completed and produced in January. One famous winter, one of the comedies (I cannot recall which) was only completed over Christmas dinner.
[1] This winter, with Taking Steps finally staged and an option on it taken out by Michael Codron for production in the West End in the autumn, Mr. Ayckbourn has kept his January date.

Up his sleeve has been his first musical play, neatly entitled
Suburban Strains, a comedy of a married woman with second thoughts about her life. The music is by 27-year-old Paul Todd, who became the theatre's musical director about two years ago.

It tells the story of a teacher, Caroline, in her early thirties, her marriage to an actor, its breakdown, her affair with a divorced doctor, and her return to her husband. Again, it is an Ayckbourn-ian peep show about life's experiences. But the incidents in that experience are told on parallel lines so that we have the two separate relationships viewed as it were simultaneously.

"I find that in a pure musical you have greater horizons on which to explore" the playwright told me backstage last week between rehearsals. "You can use flashbacks and a cinematic technique." He also discovered that the development of a musical from its inception can be like a downhill snowball: "You begin with a small idea and suddenly new, additional ones impound on the others, pleading to take part in the complete work."

There is a cast of seven, four men and three women, but apart from the central character of Caroline, they all play many parts, 14 to 15 he thinks... all the men who have moulded her attitude to the male sex and all the women, including the doctor's ex-wife, she fears she may become like.

"There are more scene-changes than I have ever planned for one show in my life," he remarked. To accomplish these, two revolving stages are to be used for the first time in the Stephen Joseph Theatre at Westwood. The interior one is permanently Caroline's flat but the periphery one gives us insights into outside events - dinner parties, schools, doctor's surgery etc., so that the past is inextricably caught up with the present.

So Ayckbourn's technical agility is still there, as is the felicity of the titling. He is the living proof that you cannot keep a good man down. He is one of the few people I know who can be relaxed, enthusiastic and eager at prospects all at the same time. He is always bubbling over with invention. Yet there is also a canny wariness, for this time he wants to see how this first venture into the world of musical drama settles down before deciding on any further marketing of the product.

The production opens on Friday and will have 20 performances only. Caroline is to be played by Lavinia Bertram, that excellent actress you may remember as the girl in the upstairs cupboard in
Taking Steps. [2] It is, I am told, an enormous role, for the actress is on the stage for the whole of the playing time and takes part in ten of Mr. Todd's 14 songs... or will it end up with 15 or 16?

When I asked Alan the old chicken-and-egg question - which came first, the music or the lyrics? - he told me: "It was more a very amicable combination of thought between the two of us. I would get an idea for a song at a given moment in the action, suggest it to Paul. He would go away and write the music, bring it back and I would write the lyric."

So each song is meant to highlight each emotion. They will be played by five musicians and the author is directing his own work once again. He paid a fine tribute to the work of Paul: "Since he became musical director he has been a boon. Apart from writing any incidental music I wanted for other plays he has given his own recitals and arranged lunchtime and Sunday concerts."

The two collaborated once before in a cabaret-type revue
Men on Women on Men, designed for lunchtime and late-night performances in the bar of the theatre.

Paul was born in Lincolnshire, studied drama at Bretton Hall, Wakefield, and then went to Leeds Playhouse where he wrote incidental music for some of the productions, and for himself what he calls "my bits and pieces."

Website Notes:
[1] The play was
Ten Times Table.
[2] Lavinia Bertram played the largely silent role of Kitty in the world premiere production of
Taking Steps at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round in 1979.

Copyright: Yorkshire 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.