Interview: The Times (1981)

This interview was published in The Times on 4 February 1981.

The Essentially Ambiguous Response

by Anthony Masters

Alan Ayckbourn's Suburban Strains, which opens a six-week season at the Round House tomorrow is the second London transfer of his Scarborough company, and his first original musical. (Only a cad would mention Jeeves.) It promises, a wry, painful picture of romance.

"It's really a musical play", Ayckbourn says, " More Teeth 'n' Smiles than
Oklahoma, I've found that Paul Todd's music actually helps me as a playwright; it's given me that necessary kick beyond naturalism. You have an equivalent of the soliloquy - no need for a boring old drunk scene to make characters say what they feel. If you suddenly bring in a shaft of music from somewhere, they can actually play the subtext. Generally the English prefer to hint round the truth, which is fun and leads to a lot of comedy, but for me it's been very interesting to find this other dimension."

It is a shock to find this coming explicitly from Ayckbourn. Like Coward, he has usually preferred to be thought too trivial than too serious. He knows his audience and turns their taste, along with every other practical limitation, to advantage. But his plays wring their laughter from pain, the angst of Ilford and Orpington.

Act II of
Absurd Person Singular, with a wordless Anna Calder-Marshall repeatedly attempting suicide amid mounting comic confusion, was a portent - and in context Tom Courtenay's curtain line in Table Manners, "I'll make you happy", could hardly be sadder. The snag Is that predominantly dark plays like Absent Friends and Just Between Ourselves had disappointing runs and have affected the success of their fellows [1]; the hilarity and charm of Taking Steps, now at the Lyric, should have drawn bigger queues than they have so far. [2]

Suburban Strains is one he had to write.

"Caroline, the central character, has been hanging around me a long time. I'm very fond of her: lovely, silly, quirky girl. It's the first time I've ever created a star part, who carries the play and makes us see the events - her relationships - through her eyes. She's 32 and a teacher, more or less untroubled by a personal life, and then along comes this actor who's young and fun and the total opposite. When the relationship breaks up, she says 'I've got the balance all wrong, I was too dominating, now I'll be feminine.' But her next man is a big mistake... There's a lot of me in her. Trying to give what you hope will be the right reaction, which quite often it isn't - not far from a total inferiority complex. Yes, she means a lot to me."

She also means a lot to Lavinia Bertram, who finds herself onstage almost non-stop for two and a half hours: "She was involved so closely from the beginning that I don't know where Lavinia ends and Caroline begins."

Seeing the plays with Michael Codron's starrier casts
[3], one can easily forget how much those roles owe to particular members of the company at Scarborough, which regularly presents them first and where Ayckbourn has been Artistic director since 1972.

Their previous Round House visit, with
Season's Greetings in October went down better with audiences than critics; this time they have re-organized the layout, bringing the capacity down to Scarborough's 300.

"The single most important thing about Scarborough is its flexibility. On a budget of maybe £3,000, nothing is not reversible. You can change things right up to the dress rehearsal, and I do, even if the production managers tend to go a bit grey. Now
Jeeves... that was a terrifying experience. There seemed to be a vast money-eating machine where you set things in motion that you couldn't stop. One of the things that went wrong (and actually everything did) was the length, so I sliced away - like a Minister for the Arts - including this bit where there wasn't much happening, just people walking on and off, and suddenly the designer came up and shouted: 'You've cut 23 costumes, they took weeks'. And I'd only cut five minutes. Now our new-size capacity at the Round House is commercially suicidal. What the hell, I want to get the show right."

He has never written for any other medium and never needed to. though he would like to get into films as a writer-director. " Perhaps a sort of Truffaut." (A pause while he chortles.) He probably will; he has always made the experimental leap when the sub stance demanded it.
Suburban Strains has a double time-scheme, using a newly-installed double revolve and a trick of summoning up preceding scenes with a few recalled words or bars of music.

Even his plots, quite rightly, obey the whims of the subject matter.
Just Between Ourselves, a study of a woman sliding unnoticed towards irreversible nervous collapse, nearly turned out very different.

"I never sit down to write a grim play. Vera in
Just Between Ourselves took me by surprise. I was going to write about a man who was awfully nice and friendly and whom everyone loathed - there is a strange breed like that. But out of the corner of my eye I saw this wife, she just came in with a cup of tea to start with, and she was crumbling away. And I thought, hang on, what's happening to her?"

Her breakdown at the tea-table, milk and sugar flying. was excruciating to watch, but many people found it wildly funny, There will always be that ambiguous response, and Ayckbourn is content.

"It's lovely when both those things happen. A man coming out of it said to me: 'If I'd known what I was laughing at at the time, I wouldn't have laughed.'

And during
Absurd Person Singular, after one matinee there was a man who had to come and lie down in Richard Briers's dressing room because of the last scene where Sheila Hancock played the alcoholic.

"He kept saying: 'That was my wife, that was my wife'. He stayed there for an hour and a half, Richard was so embarrassed, there was this man sobbing quietly on his sofa, and other people kept popping round the door and saying 'Terribly funny, Dickie. Laugh a minute'."

Website Notes:
[1] As is common, this was a London-centric interpretation of the success of the plays. At the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, for where they were written, all the plays mentioned had sell-out runs and went onto frequent and successful regional repertory theatre runs. The West End runs might not have been successful, but as Alan has always maintained, he has never considered London to be the be all and end all for his work.
[2] Alan Ayckbourn would probably disagree with this as he believes
Taking Steps should never have gone into the West End in the form it did; an ensemble piece intended solely for in-the-round performance was awkwardly transferred into a star vehicle in the proscenium arch. His unhappiness with the production and the director resulted it in being the final time Alan allowed the West End premiere of any of his plays to be directed by anyone but himself.
[3] Michael Codron was Alan Ayckbourn's most frequent West End producer between 1972 and 2001.

Copyright: The Times. 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.