Interview: Birmingham Post (1980)

This article was published in the Birmingham Post on 27 December 1980.

Success Beside The Sea

by John Slim

When you have written about two dozen plays, most of them box office bonanzas, the law of averages ensures that you must receive invitations to go and see somebody performing them from time to time. On such occasions, Alan Ayckbourn makes a habit of proceeding with caution. If the production in prospect has not been seen by someone whose judgment he can trust, he tends to beg to be excused.

"There is nothing worse than sitting through your own play with a smile, hoping nobody will ask you what you think of it and that if anybody does, you can lie convincingly."

A grimace allies uncharacteristic gloom to the soft-contoured features. Not that he complains. If fame exacts no heavier penalty than this - and so far, it does not seem to have come up with anything more untoward - then on balance he will continue to be doing very nicely, thank you.

He has the distinction of having had five plays on in the West End at the same time. His offerings flow with reassuring regularity. He is as prolific as he is popular. For Ayckbourn addicts, the rule of thumb is, another year - another Ayckbourn. They are never short of something new to lighten their imminent future.

The man himself has the unnerving distinction of having become an educational project. The schools of Britain have established the habit of ordering photographs by the dozen, backed by requests for biographical matter, and a mass of information about his beloved homespun theatre in Scarborough, the launch-pad for everything he writes.

He has been director at Scarborough since 1968
[1] and finally felt secure enough to abandon his post as a BBC radio drama producer in Leeds when, in 1970. How The Other Half Loves followed Relatively Speaking to become his second smash hit.

His ambitions a decade later are refreshingly objective: he would like to make the
Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round just as successful as he possibly can.

"I would like there to be a waiting list to get here. When people start putting their children down for a performance like they put kids down for Eton, that will be marvellous."

The boyish features, which belie the increasingly economical hair covering, radiate a perky good humour. The theatre gets its name from the man who founded it,
Stephen Joseph; who experimented and innovated; who inspired Ayckbourn to pick up his pen again after the critics had savaged an early play called Mr Whatnot, and who died in 1967, a few years short of his 50th birthday.

"He was a man of what were for his time extraordinary schemes, like in-the-round theatres; a man who brought writers into theatres, which was something very unfashionable. Writers were not animals to be seen in buildings: they lived in Corfu, sent scripts in and turned up on the first night."

Scarborough's theatre is housed in a broad expanse of red brick which was originally a school. Its
first home was on the first floor of the town library, taken over for a brief 12-week season among a community which could not remember the last time it saw anything more closely akin to legitimate theatre than the summer show. Alan Ayckbourn moved to Scarborough as a repertory actor at the end of the season at Leatherhead in 1957, for which he had been paid £5 a week.

"The stage manager said there was a company in Scarborough and I said: 'Where the hell's Scarborough?' - being London-born and like all Londoners, oblivious to anything north of Potters Bar. Stephen Joseph went round actively encouraging members of his company - box office staff and actors alike - to write. When he suggested that I should write a play, I did. It was called
The Square Cat. I wrote it and acted in it.

"The first three plays I wrote, I featured in very strongly. They were there to feature me: at that time, possibly under Coward-esque influence, I reckoned the best way to get yourself launched as an actor was to write parts for yourself which ensured that you had all the most glowing lines and all the best moments."

It is a potted history which brings Alan Ayckbourn's concern for his theatre sharply into focus. He owes Scarborough more than may be readily calculated - but Scarborough, like Britain's theatre-going public at large, is equally indebted to him.

By now, his penchant for playing with space and time has ensured that there is as much pleasure for the faithful in seeing how he does what he does as there is in simply following the plot. He has shown three couples sitting down to dinner together but 24 hours apart; he has written a trilogy in which each play reveals what is happening off-stage in the other two.
Sisterly Feelings, on the other hand, is four plays in one, with the toss of a coin deciding which of two scenes is played before the interval and the whim of an actress on the night resolving the little matter of which of two scenes we see in the second act. In Taking Steps, about people living on three floors, he has squashed the action on to one plane and has his actors running up and down stairs which keep them always firmly on the same level.

"I suppose I am a theatre writer. I live in theatres all the time. And besides being a writer, I am a
director: I am fascinated by the whole mechanics and liveliness of theatre. It seems to me that there are things which are essentially theatre at a time when a lot of the extraneous trappings of theatre, the huge settings, have been stripped away by films and television. We are left with a liveliness and spontaneity. One had to ask the question: 'What argument can I put to people in this town, to persuade them to come to the theatre?' One cannot offer them spectacle. One cannot offer them Towering Infernoes. What we can offer them is spontaneous live performance. So my plays are written for living actors and performed before a live audience."

He has a theory that audiences enjoy games. It is borne out by the way they bowl along not knowing which of the four possible versions of
Sisterly Feelings they are going to see - any more than the company knows.

"There are stage managers hovering in the wings with two sets of props, and actors are between costumes. In one of the possible scenes, a man has to go to a business meeting, but in the other he is going to a picnic. And when we did
Taking Steps in our little theatre, what I loved was that the audience, which has to walk across the stage to get to the foyer, was treating the steps the same as the actors had, and running up and down them at the interval."

He has not yet got as far as trying a palindromic play, capable of being acted backwards as well as forwards, but there was a point in the run-up to
The Norman Conquests when he was toying with the idea of a circular play, in which the action could be joined at any spot. He enjoys exploring theatrical improbabilities, but he recognises the dangers.

"One has to be aware of devices. When they actually become purely devices for their own sake. The trouble with the circular play was that no action could happen that could not be reversed in order to happen again. It became in the end rather in-bred."

He concedes that there was a period when he was what he describes as technically besotted, treating his opportunities as if they were a new pile of play bricks. It is not like that any more.

"These days, I allow my characters to dictate how the play goes. I would never these days bend the plot to suit a device if in doing so I thought I betrayed the characters. Although people are sometimes upset by
Just Between Ourselves, I think they would have been more upset long-term if I had somehow put the woman into a plight and artificially plucked her out ol it - which never happens and is no help."

He admits to a weakness for words. They can put him under their spell at any time. He revels in English for its imprecisions; never tires of the way in which the British, as a naturally undemonstrative lot, give shades of meaning to perfectly ordinary conversational exchanges.

"The under-currents of apparently quite normal have-a-cup-of-tea speech are in fact saying a lot more than that. They are saying; 'I am desperately unhappy' or 'I wish someone to help me' or 'I believe my husband is having an affair.' "

Alan Ayckbourn grew up thinking that writing was the natural thing to be doing. His mother kept him and herself for several years on the proceeds of short stories which she wrote for magazines after his father had left home - but nevertheless followed his grandparents on to the stage because at that point it had not occurred to him that if you went into the theatre there was anything to do except act.

Fortunately for the rest of us, he now knows better.

Website Notes:
[1] Alan Ayckbourn actually became Artistic Director of the Library Theatre in 1972. During 1969 and 1970 he held the annually appointed position of Director Of Productions, but in 1968 he had next to no involvement with the Library Theatre concentrating on his job as a Radio Drama Producer for the BBC.

Copyright: Birmingham 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.