Interview: The Sunday Times (1981)

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

Ayckbourn, With Music

by Ray Connolly

I know that Shakespeare is reputed to have knocked off Hamlet in a spare weekend, that Noël Coward's Private Lives took only 48 hours to write and that Ernie Wise beats the lot by doing his thing, start to finish, before lunch.

But it still comes as something of a jolt to one's powers of concentration and singleness of purpose to discover that chaps like Alan Ayckbourn can get a play from a blank sheet of paper to the first night in five weeks. Ayckbourn explains his prodigious speed of creation and production in this way.

"When the time comes for me to write a new play, I usually take two weeks off from the theatre where I spend most of the year directing. Then I sit down and work right up against the deadline. The play goes straight from the typewriter into rehearsal. Often the first time the actors see the script is when they get it the night before we start rehearsing. Then, after three weeks' rehearsal, we put it on. I would say that 99 per cent of what I have written in the two weeks' writing stays the same. Because I direct the play myself, I can short-circuit much of the writing process, and I'm always anxious to get the actors doing the lines while they are still ringing in my head. I'm a gregarious person and I find the process of writing so lonely that I can't wait to get back to working with other people."

Ayckbourn is, of course, in the peculiarly satisfying situation of being artistic director at the
Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, which means that he can try out all his plays in a small 300-seat venue, before risking them in London.

This week, Ayckbourn's little Scarborough troupe (the whole company, including cleaners, is no more than 30 people) opened at the Round House in London's Chalk Farm with what the author describes as a musical play -
Suburban Strains.

It is not, he insists, a "musical" in the way that an earlier, lavish and much lamented production,
Jeeves, with Andrew Lloyd Webber, was a musical. But the style appeals to him increasingly as another device for allowing characters to suddenly reveal exactly what they are thinking. Soliloquies in song go down better these days when audiences have become so used to the voice-over techniques used in television and film.

Although he has many viper-ish critics who are dismissive of his subject matter, clever-clever plot construction and stage gimmickry, it would be churlish to describe Ayckbourn as anything other than a very clever playwright who has a clear understanding of that hitherto unrepresented public (in terms of theatre), the middle classes and their mores.

Because of his subject matter, and also, perhaps, his somewhat portly appearance, Ayckbourn is often considered to belong to an age-group a generation or so ahead of himself. Yet at 41, he is younger than Tom Stoppard, Michael Frayn or Peter Nichols.

Considering the abuse which was hurled in his direction after the failure of
Jeeves, it was a brave step to attempt another play with music.

"I have a very catholic taste in music. I like everything from Vivaldi to Genesis. I go about as far as heavy metal. Don't like punk much. Anyway, about two years ago I thought it would be nice to appoint a musical director and we took on Paul Todd. Then eventually we began to work together. I worked out a theme and described the dramatic structure and where the songs ought to go. He then wrote the music and I wrote the lyrics. I believe that is considered the wrong way round, but that's the way we did it. I got the lyric writing bug from working with Andrew Lloyd Webber. It flexes different muscles. There's something mathematical about it which I find fascinating. It also means that I have to spend less time sitting alone writing, because I have to work closely with Paul."

Suburban Strains will run at the Round House for six weeks. After that, who knows? "No-one has come running up with big cheques to take it into the West End," he says. "People are very nervous about British musicals. I think it's because they are still trying to make Oklahoma."

In recent years Ayckbourn's plays, which at the time of
How The Other Half Loves bordered on farce, have shifted from comedy to something nearer melancholy, although he says with relish that up in Scarborough he bills everything as a comedy just to get the audiences in. The result in London has been that although the critics have been kinder, the public have been less interested. [1]

"I am interested in the comedy of recognition," he, says. "I don't like the banana skin argument. And it seems to me that the deeper you go into a character, the sadder the play must inevitably become."

Website Notes:
[1] This isn't entirely accurate. Alan has always disliked the labelling of his work and in Scarborough - even during this period - the term 'comedy' was rarely used in promotional material. Given by this time, Alan's productions in Scarborough were practically guaranteed sell-outs, the plays were advertised on his name rather than their content.

Copyright: The Sunday 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.