Interview: In Britain (1980)

This article was published in the In Britain magazine during May 1980.

Playwright In The Round

by William Foster

The first half of the play was over and the audience was spilling into the foyer and crowding round the bar. For the next minutes, all the talk about the plot and the characters took second place to that great British pastime known as Catching the Barmaid's Eye.

Some of the theatregoers at the
Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round at Scarborough are old campaigners. They had ordered and paid for their drinks in advance and were sipping away in a rather superior manner. Among them was the oldest campaigner of all, a bulky, rather ordinary-looking man standing on the sidelines and nursing a pint of bitter.

Between the acts, he tends to mingle with the audience and quietly register their comments. But this time he was recognised. 'You are Mr Ayckbourn, aren't you?" asked the slightly dissatisfied Yorkshireman. 'I don't go much for the play, you know. 'The idea's good, mind you.' he went on magnanimously, while his wife pulled at his sleeve, 'but you could have made a lot more of it. Now, if I'd been writing it, I'd have....'

But the bell rang for the second half and people began drifting back to their seats.

As this is a theatre-in-the-round, there is no proscenium arch and no curtain. No scenery, either. The audience sits round the central arena, some of them looking down on it from the back rows, some of them within inches of the actors.

Even getting back to their seats meant crossing the set of
Taking Steps, Alan Ayckbourn's latest play, with its unmade bed and dressing table and cupboard, in which one of the characters is trapped for an entire night.

Ayckbourn directs the plays as well as writing them and Scarborough, on the Yorkshire coast, is where they have their world premiere.
Absurd Person Singular, Joking Apart, Bedroom Farce or The Norman Conquests triIogy - they all opened here in the middle of an English winter at a seaside resort, long after the lickers of ice cream and the builders of sandcastles had gone home. [1] If a play succeeds in these conditions, says Ayckbourn, at least it stands a chance when it moves into London's more sophisticated theatreland the following spring or summer.

Four of his comedies have played on Broadway. They are
How the Other Half Loves (1971), Absurd Person Singular (1974), The Norman Conquests (1975) and Bedroom Farce (1979).

"The only problem about playing to American audiences is that their humour is rooted in people's neuroses, while English humour is more slapstick," says Ayckbourn. The producers of
Absurd Person Singular tried unsuccessfully to persuade him that the acts should be played in a different order in New York, since the play becomes rather bleak in the third act. "In Yorkshire, they take their humour seriously, if you see what I mean, so the play was dead right for Scarborough."

Alan Ayckbourn adores Scarborough, summer or winter, but especially in the winter. "I live in a rambling, converted vicarage near the castle ruins, and I really feel quite proprietorial about Scarborough when the summer visitors have departed. When I'm stuck over a particular scene and it doesn't come right, I put on my gumboots and walk along the beach and scream abuse at the seagulls. I can talk to myself without anyone noticing and wondering if I ought to be at large."

Whether it is the sting of spray on his face on a blustery day or the ozone for which Scarborough is famous, the problem usually dissolves in the salty air and another comic masterpiece is on its way.

If he is not down among the spray on the beach, he can sometimes be found 250 feet above sea level on the great Scarborough headland. The skeletal outline of the castle ruins, which dominates the top of the hill, almost symbolises an Ayckbourn play. He is a writer who likes to strip his characters bare, removing layer upon layer to find what makes them tick.

His job as an assistant stage manager brought him to Scarborough over 20 years ago. There he met
Stephen Joseph, the son of Hermione Gingold, who had opened Britain's very first theatre-in-the-round at the town's public library, after being introduced to this revolutionary method of staging plays in America. It was Joseph who badgered Ayckbourn into writing his first comedy, Relatively Speaking [2] - and it was Ayckbourn, when Joseph died, who followed him as Artistic Director.

Today the
Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round occupies a converted school at the bottom of a steep slope in the middle of the town. A chilly wind whipped at the coats of the theatregoers as they made their way down, holding on to each other and smiling happily as they arrived in the glow of lights at the bottom.

It was nothing like a visit to a Broadway theatre or to the bright lights of London's West End. Everyone knew everyone else aand waved at each other cheerfully, as if they were proud parents attending a graduation ceremony at the end of a university year.

"Which, of course, is the exact reverse of what a Yorkshire audience is really like," said Ayckbourn when I talked to him the next day. He had invited me to a cheese and sandwich lunch in his room in between rehearsals of a grim drama,
The Crucible, by Arthur Miller, which he was directing.

"They're tougher up here and more inclined to sit back and say, right, entertain me. Which is good. I can almost hear them say: "Look, laddie, I paid my £1.85 at the box office, which is a muckle lot of brass, and if it's not funny, I'll sort you out later." They have a saying up here: "It's too daft to laugh at", and when I hear that, I know I've overstepped the mark."

Yorkshire is where Ayckbourn thrives best. "The people are gritty and down-to-earth, without pretences of any kind. Like their own landscape and scenery, in fact." He illustrates this with his own wanderings along the rugged coast in search of ideas. A favourite walk is from Ravenscar, near Scarborough, to Robin Hood's Bay. "A geologist would go mad with delight. The whole of the Jurassic strata are exposed at one place or another." Towards Hayburn Wyke, the path ascends a rocky outcrop of cliff and the air is so crystal clear, says Ayckbourn, that the colours of the rocks and pebbles are like an artist's palette.

There are no pretences about Yorkshire scenery. But the characters in his plays are full of foibles and pretences. They are nearly always middle-class Home Counties English covering up their inadequacies with their cliches and overloud voices. "I have nothing against my characters. They're usually nice and well-meaning and I met a lot of them when I was growing up."

He is a Londoner by birth. His mother was a successful short story writer for women's magazines, his father a violinist in the London Symphony Orchestra. When his father died, his mother married a bank manager.

"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 Ayckbourn's theatre -self-justifying, a bit pompous and rather pathetic.

"One or two critics get a bit upset by my stuff because they think it pokes fun at the best of human nature. But I'm really showing how sad it is that people can try to be nice and that it sometimes doesn't work. I'm saying that a lot of the worst things that happen in life are the result of well-meaning actions."

He began an
acting career as a schoolboy when his mathematics master took a student production of Macbeth' to America. Then he joined Donald Wolfit's company. "In 1956, he was looking for someone cheap at £3 a week. I played a sentry. He employed me because I'd been in the cadet force and could be guaranteed not to faint on parade."

Wolfit, who was a larger-than-life actor-manager of the old school, probably gave him a taste for the stress and heat of a theatre workshop such as he runs in Scarborough. Ayckbourn had to build his theatre up from scratch, starting just over three years ago when he got a three-year lease on the disused school.

The former assembly hall was the obvious place for the stage. "But that's about all we had - two rooms, one of them still containing the school board, with prefects' names picked out in gold lettering, and one wash basin among twelve of us. I said to the others: 'Listen, fellers, let's go for broke. Let's spend every penny we have in making this a theatre Scarborough can be proud of. Then, perhaps, we'll get a further extension on the lease."

The plan seems to have worked because a further ten-year lease has just been granted. The Arts Council, the English Tourist Board and the local council all contributed grants. After attending numerous Scarborough Council meetings to discuss the running of his theatre, Ayckbourn had one of his most successful ideas.

"I'd noticed that committees change people's characters entirely. Weak men become tyrants and people end up gibbering with frustration." It gave him the idea for
Ten Times Table, which is about a small town committee organising a village pageant.

The funny things that happen in life are always giving him ideas. One of the characters in
Taking Steps, a meek and mild solicitor's clerk who keeps stumbling over his words and lapsing into incomprehension, is Ayckbourn himself when things are getting on top of him. He says he has yet to use the terrible moment, fraught with embarrassment, when a schoolboy asked him how he, too, could become a writer.

Flattered that he had been singled out for such a question, Ayckbourn tried to look worldly and sophisticated but spoilt the effect by putting the lighted end of his cigarette into his mouth by mistake. Anxious to keep up the pose, he continued giving advice through clenched teeth, like a fire-eater in the circus.

The extraordinary thing about him is that he loathes writing and often refers to it as "the enemy". Only the pressure to provide a new comedy for his ten-strong company to perform will induce him to pick up his pen again. But even that is not enough of an incentive. He needs a deadline and imposes one on himself by announcing the title of the play even before the first word has been written. The opening date is fixed, posters are printed, tickets sold and the cast engaged.

Three or four days before the first rehearsal, Ayckbourn holes up in his room and writes steadily all night from 9 pm till 7 am, sleeps until mid-afternoon and then carries on. On the night before the opening rehearsal, he runs off copies of the finished script and rushes round town, shoving them through the actors' letter boxes.

"The only time I fell down on the job was over
Taking Steps." This, his 24th play, is a farce in which the action takes place on three different floors of a house though confined, for stage purposes, to the one set.

"Farce is the most difficult thing of all to write because it has to be a riot from beginning to end. I was a couple of days late with it this year and strayed into my rehearsal period. So perhaps I'm cracking up." It seems unlikely.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round at Scarborough is open for 40 out of the 52 weeks in the year and puts on everything from a new Ayckbourn comedy to a Shakespeare tragedy. When he is not directing or writing or shouting abuse at the seagulls, Ayckbourn likes to eat out occasionally at the Lanterna Restaurant in Queen Street, which is so good that it figures in both the Good Food Guide and the Egon Ronay Guide.

"It opened in the winter at the same time that we opened the Theatre-in-the-Round and drew fewer customers than we did. To begin with, I went there night after night just to keep it going. Now it's doing tremendous business. As it's Italian, they do the most marvellous pasta and veal and they're also open after the show for late dinners."

His other great haunt is Corrigan's, the pinball table hall on the foreshore, where there is every kind of elaborate machine to coax the small change from the pockets of visitors. "I'm amazed at the sheer ingenuity and craft that goes into electronic amusements," he says, unconsciously echoing what critics say of his own plays.

His eyes glint with amusement, rather like a child's. Ayckbourn may have made a lot of money but his tastes are essentially simple. If he is not at the theatre, he is often to be found at his local pub, the 18th century Leeds Arms, which is only 50 yards from his own front door. It is an ordinary fisherman's pub, very easy-going, where the beer is drawn up naturally by hand-pump and the proprietor, Les Jensen, will talk about anything, from transcendental meditation (which he practices) to the advisability of waiting for a new Ayckbourn play to settle down to a decent run before going to see it.

"He's very relaxed, is Mr Ayckbourn, when he comes here." A pause. "No one here bothers about the famous unless they've seen them on TV." Another pause. "He's all right, Mr Ayckbourn is."

From a Yorkshireman, that is high praise indeed.

Website Notes:
[1] This isn't accurate.
Absurd Person Singular, Bedroom Farce and The Norman Conquests opened during the summer season in Scarborough with only Joking Apart opening during the winter season.
[2]
Relatively Speaking was actually Alan's seventh professionally produced play. His first play, The Square Cat, was commissioned by Stephen Joseph and premiered at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1959.

Copyright: In Britain. 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.