Interview: Richmond & Twickenham Times (1986)

This interview was published in the Richmond & Twickenham Times on 1 August 1986.

Ayckbourn Comes To Richmond

by Jenny Scott

"I'm really a director who writes rather than a writer-director."

That seems like a massive understatement from Alan Ayckbourn who has penned more than 30 plays since he began writing for the theatre in the late '50s.
[1] Relatively Speaking was his first major hit with Celia Johnson and Michael Horden. How the Other Half Loves ran for two years at the Lyric; Absurd Person Singular won the Evening Standard Best Comedy Award for 1973. There was the formidable trilogy The Norman Conquests in 1974 and the list goes on.

Currently his play
A Chorus of Disapproval is still packing them in in the West End. His latest play Woman in Mind is to have its premiere at the Richmond Theatre next week with Julia McKenzie in the lead and, as is customary with an Ayckbourn play, the author himself in the director's chair.

In a break from rehearsals at the Old Vic last week he told me he is on what is "laughingly known as a two year Sabbatical from Scarborough" where he has been
artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round since 1972.

"Nobody ever sees me directing here except for my own plays, I do it all in Scarborough. But it was a long time to be administering - that's what got me tired, not the directing."

And the writing?

"That really takes up very little of my time. Most of it takes place in my head while I'm doing other things. The physical art of writing the play takes a week to ten days, so at the rate of one a year, what am I going to do for 51 weeks? I might as well go out and direct a few plays which I love doing."

After an initial run-in at Richmond Theatre and Brighton,
Woman in Mind transfers to the Vaudeville for its West End run. Later this year he goes to the national to direct three plays: one of them A View from the Bridge. He admires Arthur Miller - "a great craftsman and writer." Chekhov, Ibsen and contemporary playwrights like Neil Simon, Michael Frayn, Simon Gray are some of his favourite writers. He enjoys the recent Stoppards. "I couldn't understand the earlier ones although they were vastly enjoyed."

Guardian critic Michael Billington, one of Ayckbourn's greatest admirers, has a strongly held belief that he is a socialist writer who writes right-wing plays. This seemed to amuse him greatly. "I think I'm a morality dramatist. People do tend to get what they deserve in my plays.

Woman in Mind he says: "Firstly it's the biggest part I've ever written for an actress. It's a first person narrative play seen through the eyes of Susan played by Julia McKenzie. On a simple level it's about this woman who has such an unsatisfactory life she takes refuge in fantasy when life gets too dull. Eventually she can't sort out what is real.

"Yes" he admitted, "I do use elements of the family in my characters and friends. People don't often recognise themselves - if they were ghastly their own vanity wouldn't permit it, if nice their own modesty wouldn't allow it. But some people have said 'hey, that's me'. I draw most of my characters from myself and people I know. Nervous mannerisms from someone on a train but rarely a whole character - a germ of an idea from someone overheard in a restaurant.

"The nonsensical way I work in Scarborough is to announce the play long before it's written. Sometimes I finish it literally hours before we start rehearsing."

He admits he hates changing anything he's written.

"Content is the trouble. If you've got the whole thing completely wrong you throw the whole thing away and start again. I have scrubbed plays." As an idea? "Yes; or maybe I've gone in at the wrong angle. I had the thing very clearly in my mind but hadn't discovered the shell. Like the play I wrote some years ago,
Absurd Person Singular. I wanted to write about the gradual decline of two sets of couples and the rise of another couple over them and I started in the conventional way of setting the play in the sitting room. I discovered half way through it was boring. Whatever was happening off stage in the kitchen was really what we should be looking at. I'd got myself in the wrong room. You have to bring the action to the audience in the theatre."

I suggested he'd totally got round that problem in
The Norman Conquests trilogy where in each succeeding play the audience found out what had been happening off stage in the previous one. He had, apparently written them crosswise - scene 1, scene 1 scene 1 then 2. A lot of people had tried to pick holes in them.

"It seems to me" he said "whatever you do with a play, a comedy which this (
Woman in Mind) is, half the ingredients are missing till the actors hear what the audience make of it. It's like a superstition in the theatre. We're all careful in rehearsals not to assume we'll get a laugh in certain places especially with my stuff which is a bit oblique, not like Neil Simon who has the safe laugh-line.

"Extraordinary the way a completely disparate group of strangers - the audience in a theatre - form within seconds corporate personality. Great fun - what makes good live theatre worth it. You come on never quite knowing what you're going to meet over that abyss out there.

"My instruction to the cast of
Woman in Mind - we must have this absolutely stunning by the time we open in Richmond then it will just get better and better."

Website Notes:
[1] Alan Ayckbourn's first professionally play opened at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1959. Between then and August 1986 - when the article was published - Alan had written 32 plays.

Copyright: Richmond & Twickenham 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.