Interview: The Standard (1983)

This interview was published in The Standard on 11 March 1983.

Reel Good Show!

by Charles Spencer

Alan Ayckbourn looked a happy man as he sat in the pub next door to the Greenwich Theatre with just a frugal roll and a soft drink for his lunch.

He was in the midst of detailed technical rehearsals for his 28th show,
Making Tracks, which opens there next Monday after previews this week. The good news, both for Greenwich and I suspect Mr Ayckbourn himself, is that this time there are no tanks of water and no cabin cruiser to go wrong.

Making Tracks is emphatically set on dry land, in a recording studio, and from the evidence of the script promises to be very funny indeed. There is a singer who can't sing, a seedy and decidedly bolshy band, an increasingly desperate entrepreneur and a shady businessman with a strong line in verbal menaces, all involved in a story which turns out to be both farcical and touching.

Ayckbourn is chary of describing it as a musical, believing the word raises grandiose and false expectations. Nevertheless, the show also has 10 songs composed by Paul Todd, the music director of Ayckbourn's own theatre in Scarborough with whom he has worked on several musical plays before.

"It's a jolly evening," said Mr Ayckbourn. "It came straight after
Way Upstream and that was very dark, I think, and I wanted to have some fun. I just like to keep moving."

The play has been influenced by Ayckbourn's years as a
radio producer, when he was actively involved in recording music. He still has tapes from those days including one of Ben Kingsley singing which he threatens to release commercially as SingalongaGandhi.

More pertinent to the present play however was the occasion when a trio of girl singers came into the studio with their mothers and Ayckbourn and his sound engineer discovered only one of them could sing. To reveal the way they got round the problem would be to reveal too much of the mechanics of Ayckbourn's pilot but he is clearly fascinated by the technical possibilities of the recording studio and they are used to continuous comic effect.

Much play is made of the sound proof nature of the studio, so some scenes which appear a hive of activity are played in total silence. Working on musicals seems to give him a real sense of liberation.

"I appointed Paul Todd as Music Director and had no idea what he was going to do. I just had an idea music was going to be very important. His first job was to bring musicians into the theatre without a budget so he got guitarists in far the price of a pint and I started to turn my hand to lyric-writing. That was fun, working with someone and getting away from the loneliness of writing."

Ayckbourn describes himself as a
director who also happens to write. By far the greatest part of his year is spent directing productions at Scarborough but occasionally he takes time off to write. He imposes appalling deadlines on himself, announcing the opening date of a new play before he has written a word. From first draft to first night takes about five weeks.

"I tend to absent myself from a production and that gives me about four weeks' grace. I go into Purdah, no one is allowed to come near me and for three weeks I don't do anything except walk around looking worried. In the last week things begin to happen."

He will produce a script in three to five days, usually working through the night, producing three drafts. He photocopies and binds the results of his labours and delivers them into the actors hands just before rehearsals start.

"I get a real childish delight in binding the things and saying this is mine." The writing itself he describes as "rough" and "an awful job."

There are still some who see Ayckbourn as the creator of well crafted but essentially lightweight comedies and the impression is reinforced by the man himself. A burly, jovial looking figure in his early forties, he laughs a good deal as he talks, often at himself. But in many of his later works the comedy is shot through with great human sadness and cruelty. Some detected the presence of real evil in
Way Upstream, others have compared him to Chekhov.

Few are better than Ayckbourn at capturing the routine loneliness of life, the bruises individuals unwittingly inflict on each other, the bleak wastes of tired marriages. He acknowledges this darkness himself.

"In any theme I chose to do I hope I will always pursue the truth of it. Human nature is 50 per cent dark, possibly more, so it is inevitable you will hit dark areas unless you deliberately avoid them as I did early on when it was all a game."

While the critics tend to favour the darker works (though
Way Upstream proved an exception) audiences flocked in larger droves to the lighter ones.

"All the serious ones don't do so well, there's always going to be a turndown. If you want to put the box office up you put something light on. Fortunately I'm still able to do that. One in every two or three plays turns out to be jolly and the audience comes flooding back."

He takes hostile critical reaction in his stride.

"In the early part of my career people wrote wonderful, ecstatic, far too beautiful things about me, like, this is the greatest living dramatist since Shakespeare, the funniest since Congreve. A lot of superlatives were used and I remember at the time glowing quite pleasantly and wondering where do we go from here, where does the greatest living dramatist go except downwards. It is inevitable you will get a backlash."

His energy and invention show little sign of flagging. Does he ever fear he will dry-up? At this Mr Ayckbourn touched wood frantically.

"You always think it might be the last one and that will be a dreadful thing when it does happen, though I don't know, I might be relieved but it's been rather nice, the next idea has always popped up like a mushroom when I've picked up the last one. I think that's largely to do with the way we work in Scarborough. It's like a motor saying more, more, more."

Copyright: The Standard. 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.