Interview: Yorkshire Post (1986)

This interview was published in the Yorkshire Post on 31 May 1986.

Change Of Direction

by Jill Parkin

Alan Ayckbourn does not like the word artistic. "It brings the British out in a rash, particularly the British male," says the 47-year-old British No. 1 playwright.

But he has been
artistic director in the converted school building which is the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round since 1972. In September, he takes two years off to go to the National Theatre as an associate director with his own company. He is already organising sets for his first production.

Talking during rehearsals for the Scarborough revival of
Time and Time Again, he said: "I wanted to know if I could do plays outside the confines of Scarborough. It is important for an artist not to get too comfortable in his routine. You start to produce the same things."

But Ayckbourn hopes there is constant change in himself and in his work. He says: "There is no way that
Time and Time Again, written in 1971, is by the same man who wrote Woman in Mind, my latest play. It is still funny, but it deals with a woman and her mental breakdown."

Ayckbourn believes the Scarborough theatre could use the break as well. He has been with it since its early days in the town's
Library, where the late Stephen Joseph discouraged the Haileybury-educated assistant stage manager from becoming an actor in favour of writing and directing.

Ayckbourn says: "There has been an assumption from central funding bodies that if the theatre were ailing and because of my reliance on it, I would bale it out. I have put money into it but I don't want to feel that Scarborough has a theatre only as long as I am here. These two years will help establish it on its own feet."

He has bought a house in Wapping, but he promises he will be back. He is keeping his house in the old town at Scarborough - the former vicarage where Stephen Joseph lived. He says: "I could live on the South Cliff, which is nobby, or in Scalby, which is even nobbier, but I like to be where all the people are. I'm not a South Cliff or Scalby type of person."

He recalls briefly seeing Jeremy Irons at a recent award ceremony in London. He says: "He came in, and every camera in the place was on him. He looked just like a hunted animal. Heather (partner, lady-love and quasi-manager) and I just slipped in. I thought 'Thank God I am just a writer'."

And that is how he likes it. He calls himself a lurker, a fly on the wall. His first season at the National Theatre, where he will have a company of his own choosing, includes plays in three auditoriums. He starts with
Tons of Money, the first of the Aldwych farces, in the Lyttleton, Miller's A View from the Bridge'' in the Cottesloe, and his own A Small Family Business in the Olivier. This will be the first of his plays not to be premiered in either Scarborough or its sister theatre, in Stoke. [2]

London certainly does not fill him with awe. He is a big chap and has shoulders broad enough to take the stick. He says: "I've been in and out of fashion about a dozen times. What happens is that a critic comes along and says that this man is the best writer in English since Congreve. Then someone else comes along and asks how this chap dares claim to be the greatest since Congreve. The writer is left inaudibly mumbling that he never said it."

He will be both writing and directing at the National - not an easy double role. As writer he says he needs people for his raw material. But he says: "As a director I have to distance myself from my actors. An actor likes to feel there is something in a director which is apart. You lose that if you are around too much drinking in the bar after every performance."

His previous productions at the National include
Bedroom Farce co-directed with Peter Hall, Sisterly Feelings and Way Upstream. The revival of the 1971 Time and Time Again has made Ayckbourn realise how much his work has changed. His last production featured a woman having a nervous breakdown. It does not sound like comedy material, but Ayckbourn finds lots of humour in woman's changing role. "Especially in men's reaction to it. Men do not quite know where they are or what they are supposed to be doing. There is a lot of humour in that," he says.

His plays revolve around family relationships. (Ayckbourn is separated, has two grown-up sons and is shortly to be a grandfather). He says: "It's good for someone to realise when he comes along to a play that he is not the only one with crass in-laws. Everyone has crass in-laws. And I am fascinated by how tenuous relationships are. Someone can walk into a couple's life and blow everything sky-high."

His plays, although more explicit than they used to be, are still remarkably clean. He says much of. his characterisation and his characters' problems are born of sexual tension. "But actual sex on stage just is not funny. The audience will shut up. Two real people humping away on. stage is just embarrassing. I asked friends once, for
Bedroom Farce, what they did in bed. Sex hardly, came into it. One couple played Derby Winners. They would lie there, asking each other who won the Derby in 1936 or 1948."

Ayckbourn has been translated into 24 languages. He has 33 plays regularly performed.
[3] He writes about' one a year. A Small Family Business was actually written for the National - a challenge for a writer used to a tiny theatre in the round. Writing for a thousand seater auditorium (it is just a 303 seater at Scarborough) brings new possibilities.

When Ayckbourn took
A Chorus of Disapproval to the Olivier (now he's moving it to the Lyric) he was able to double the cast to 20. He tends to wander around the foyer at the National, doing his fly-on-the-wall routine. He says no one notices him. "Successful writers, except people like Noël Coward, tend to be faceless."

Ayckbourn will return, he says, after his two years and a holiday. Yorkshire play-goers will rejoice that his face will not disappear from the Scarborough scene. He'd better not set foot in Scalby, though.

Website Notes:
[1] Scalby is a village on the north edge of Scarborough and, to locals, is a posh part of the town.
[2] To be pedantic, Alan and Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical
Jeeves opened at the Bristol Hippodrome before transferring to the West End in 1975.
[3] This is journalistic invention. Alan had only written 32 plays by 1986 (although there were several revues and other works). Of these 32 plays, 7 had already been withdrawn from production and several such as
Mr Whatnot and Family Circles were rarely produced during this period.

Copyright: Yorkshire 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.