Interview: Bristol Evening Post (1980)

This article was published in the Bristol Evening Post on 8 March 1980.

Waiting In The Wings

by David Harrison

Alan Ayckbourn has three new plays waiting to go to London and two - including a world premiere, tour - heading for Avon.

He is probably Britain's most popular playwright and his plays, the bane of the snobbier London critics, have been translated into 24 languages. Yet despite all this, Ayckbourn is still based on the middle floor of a
Victorian school in Scarborough and all his new plays are tried out on his own local audiences before being let loose nationally.

"I find it difficult to write plays in abstract - it's a continuous process from conception to performance and it has to be worked out here or it won't be done at all," he told me. "When the National Theatre wanted to do
Bedroom Farce, I told them it would have to be seen first in Scarborough or it couldn't be done in London. I do tend to write with only Scarborough in mind. If I started to worry what the New York Times was going to think about a piece, it wouldn't get written at all."

With Alan's popularity and a long list of successful plays behind him, the chances are that an Ayckbourn play is being staged in at least one theatre in Britain at any one time. So doesn't he worry about over-exposure?

"This is always a problem," he admitted. "But I only write one play a year which, like the planes at Heathrow, start circulating, waiting for an opening. The West End is three behind at the moment so
Sisterly Feelings will open in the spring, Taking Steps in the autumn and a musical called Suburban Strains next year. Then there will be another delay before they get out on tour again."

Taking Steps, his latest, opens at Bath Theatre Roya| next week after a European tour, and is dedicated to Ben Travers. It is a true farce, the first Alan has written since How the Other Half Loves, but with a difference.

"I have shown the script to Ben Travers and he approves," said Alan. "It has more right to be called a farce - that is, ordinary people set in an increasingly ludicrous situation - than anything else I have ever written but it is also in my own personal tradition."

Because the play was written for the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round Company - Ayckbourn's Scarborough group - the traditional trappings of farce - lots of doors - had to be reconceived. So the play has been staged on three floors, flattened on to one level and with flights of flat stairs that the cast pant up and down while remaining firmly in the same place.

"We were very uneasy as we rehearsed it because we wondered if the audience would understand what was going on," said Alan. "But audiences have far more intelligence than they are often credited with and once they latched on to the idea they seem to appreciate it. It really is great fun."

Alan Ayckbourn is now 41 and has worked in the theatre since leaving school. He started as
actor and stage manager and joined Stephen Joseph's Library Theatre in Scarborough - a major turning point, for it was Stephen Joseph who first encouraged him to write.

After a spell as a
radio drama producer, he returned to Scarborough to take over the company. Stephen Joseph, a pioneer of theatre-in-the-round, had died tragically and the company was renamed after him. [1]

Since then Scarborough has been the launching pad for such major successes as
Relatively Speaking, [2] Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests, Ten Times Table and others.

There was one disaster, the ill-fated musical
Jeeves, which was premiered in Bristol and which sank without trace in London. But that was an exception to the rule that Ayckbourn equals success, a pattern repeated around the world.

"My plays do seem to do rather well in translation," said Alan. "I suppose it's because my characters represent what the world generally believes are real English types - soppy women and inadequate men."

Alan was hoping to visit Bath with the Stephen Joseph company next week but has to adjudicate at an amateur drama festival instead. But it will be his production by his own company.

Website Notes:
[1] Stephen Joseph founded the Library Theatre in Scarborough in 1955 - the UK"s first professional theatre-in-the-round company. Alan Ayckbourn joined the company in 1957 before leaving in 1962 and joining the BBC in 1965. Stephen Joseph died in 1967 and Alan took on the annually appointed role of Director Of Productions during 1969 and 1970 before leaving the BBC in 1970 and becoming the company's Artistic Director in 1972.
Relatively Speaking was produced in 1965 at the Library Theatre, two years prior to Stephen Joseph's death and was directed by Joseph.

Copyright: Bristol Evening 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.