Interview: Midweek (1985)

This interview was published in Midweek on 31 October 1985.

A Chorus Of Approval

by Sarah Gristwood

If there was a prize for the most prolific playwright ever, Alan Ayckbourn would surely win it. With 32 plays to his credit, he writes them in "days rather than weeks", and has had success after success. Sarah Gristwood talks to Ayckbourn about life, Scarborough and his eccentric musical
Me, Myself and I.

"Sandwich chappie?"exclaims Alan Ayckbourn as the press officer appears bearing a tray. "Glad someone's found a use for Wood."
[1] The voice, the vocabulary, the use of the surname in a world where Christian or at a pinch full-names are the norm, are all typical of what Ayckbourn himself calls his gentle English, public school upbringing. So, of course, is his well-known passion for cricket, it is ironic that such an Englishman, writing about such very English subjects, should have suffered from the English mistrust of cleverness.

There is always a slight feeling that, brilliant as they are, Alan Ayckbourn's plays cannot be really important. He writes them too easily ("days, rather than weeks") and he writes too many of them.

"What the British like," he says, "are people who really try hard. The appeal of certain popular entertainers who shall be nameless is just they are sweating their guts out for you."

In many ways, Ayckbourn shares the English attitude to success.

Back in the unfashionable days when I was brought up, one didn't make a great fuss."

A recent television programme on Leonard Bernstein of
West Side Story fame, in which the American composer showed no reluctance to praise himself, "made my English hackles rise. Unfortunately, if you say you are no good these days people begin to believe you. In the last few years I've tried to make writing sound harder."

Heather "the lady I live with" complains that he has tended to lie in the other direction. It may only take him a matter of days to write, but he looks 20 years older while he is doing it.

It is usual to say that Ayckbourn writes a play a year, but he probably writes more than that. Thirty-two plays have appeared since he first saw his work produced when he was 20. Fewer years than that have passed, "though not many". He could write more than he does, he says, but he has to be strict with himself.

"No writing until April'. It isn't a good idea to write a second play while you still have the taste of the first in your mouth."

Those 32 plays that have appeared include the little as well as the large. Ayckbourn has
A Chorus of Disapproval, a distinctly full-scale show running in the big Olivier Theatre [at the National Theatre] at the moment.

Starting next autumn, he is taking a two-year sabbatical from the
Scarborough theatre, of which he is Artistic Director and where almost all his work first sees the light to form a company at the National Theatre and produce a play in each of its three auditoriums.

His current project is cast in a much smaller mould.
Me, Myself and I, a musical [2] by Alan Ayckbourn and Paul Todd can be seen this weekend and next at 10.30pm in the NT's Lyttelton Buffet. Four actors present the three faces of Mrs Mary Yately, a woman who thinks she has won the Ideal Mum competition in her local newspaper. Ayckbourn prefers to call it "a play with music". "Musical," he feels, with its connotations of The Bounty, arouses expectations which are unlikely to be fujfulled.

He is more than happy to have the play performed in the Lyttelton Buffet, comparatively minor venue though it may seem. About three per cent of the population goes to the theatre, he points out. He is all in favour of trying to reach the other 97 per cent.

''Some are not interested. Others find it scary for reasons of class or sex. Men think it saps their virility. I try to stage something for people who don't like going to the theatre.
Me, Myself and I was written in a bar, for a bar, for an audience who is eating and drinking. My heart has always been in this fringey business." [3]

Ayckbourn is also happy to see another side of the NT: having to worry about finding props after working with the huge team in the Olivier. The Olivier, he says, is in the end a heroic theatre. "I can't play my Scarborough games there. Up in Scarborough we are in a rowing boat while the National is the QE2. The problem with the QE2 is that it takes seven miles to stop."

Scarborough, from Ayckbourn's point of view does have advantages. He has "immense artistic freedom there - the only limitations are the financial ones." He has moreover the opportunity to put plays into production the day - literally - he has finished them. From pen to audience can take as little as five weeks. Then, admittedly, he tends to "take a deep breath and see the mistakes I've made". But the business of producing, "while the ink is still wet", can generate a tremendous excitement with the cast.

Continual involvement with Scarborough gives Ayckbourn the Writer another benefit, that of being able to observe his audience - "and you do tend to heed the advice of an audience over a long period." He has always tended to heed them more than the critics - and- seeing them give an unfavourable reaction to 20 or 30 performances you can't say "they're a dim bunch tonight," he points put. "Either you admit the possibility of a whole world of fools, or you admit the script is slightly creaky."

Ayckbourn thinks of himself far more as a
director than a writer. Certainly he has never had some of the classic writer's traumas, the sending off of plays into the blue, then seeing them produced, if at all, two years later when they are already beginning to look stale.

"I always had the door opened to me," he says. "Even at the very beginning of my career. I have never in my life had a script rejected. Of course, some might say 'about time he did.'"

Website Notes:
[1] Alan was here referring to the theatre's press office Stephen Wood, who would go on to become the Stephen Joseph Theatre's General Administrator in 1996.
[2]
Me, Myself & I is more accurately a musical revue.
[3]
Me, Myself & I was premiered in The Studio at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, as a lunch-time show.

Copyright: Midweek. 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.