Interview: Richmond & Twickenham Comet (1986)

This interview was published in the Richmond & Twickenham Comet on 14 August 1986.

Ayckbourn - Through Eye Of A Woman

by Graninne O'Kelly

There's nothing like an audience to restore your confidence in a play, muses Alan Ayckbourn. Especially if it's a comedy you've rehearsed all the jokes to death for four weeks.

That's precisely what he hopes audiences - the "vital ingredient," he calls them - will do at Richmond Theatre this week for the premiere of his new play,
Woman In Mind.

The play marks a departure for Ayckbourn - rather than presenting his customary motley, mixed-up crew of characters on an equal basis,
Woman In Mind sees events entirely through the eyes of one woman.

"I wanted to write a play in the first person," he says. "It's about the biggest woman's part I have ever written - probably the biggest part full stop."

The role means Julie McKenzie, who also starred in the TV version of
Absent Friends, is on stage all the time. She plays Susan, married to a "dull but worthy" vicar, with average-to-boring offspring and a dreadful sister-in-law. Out of desperation, she begins to invent another perfect, colour supplement family in her mind. But things go wrong when dream and reality collide and become almost indefinable.

The outcome can be seen at Richmond this week, and Ayckbourn is delighted the play is seeing the light of day here and in Brighton before opening at London's Vaudeville Theatre in early September.

"It's a good theatre to work in," says the Hampstead-born playwright. "And it's near enough to London for a play that is premiering for everyone to go to, without bringing down the whole weight of West End critics on the first night!"

In fact he has avoided premiering any of his plays in the West End until they have been seen at the small
Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round Scarborough, where he has been artistic director since 1972.

"The searchlight of London on a play first time out can send you limping back to your desk feeling slightly injured," he says. "All my plays up till now have been written for the small theatre. It allows me tremendous artistic control, and probably explains why I have written so many (32) plays. And it gives me the right to fail."

This statement actually belies a consistent success rate since his first hit,
Relatively Speaking, in 1967, a success which has lain partly in the increasing strength of his characters. Far from stereotypes, they are people with human failings and often middle-class pretensions to which their creator applies a finely-sharpened scalpel where it hurts most. And under the comic surface there is often a profound loneliness. It wasn't always like this.

"I started years ago writing plays which were clockwork vehicles, quite broad farces," says Ayckbourn. "But as time went on, I became more interested in the nature of laughter and learned to relax and not write quite so manic plays, and I have tended to explore the darker elements of people. I find a great loneliness in people, a great lack of understanding between people. I tend to emphasise mostly the lack of understanding that exists between most men and women," he says.

Many of his characters strike firm chords of recognition. Anyone who has ever indulged in amateur dramatics, for instance, will appreciate the uncanny accuracy of his portrait of an operatic society in
A Chorus Of Disapproval, which recently transferred to the Lyric Theatre from the National.

From the good-time young marrieds and fluttering matrons to romantic intrigues and backstage wheeler-dealing, it's all there. You can practically put your own names to the faces. Particularly memorable is the wonderful Dafydd Ap Llewellyn, the sociey's ex-pro director, given a manic believability in Colin Blakely's brilliant performance. Is there anything of Ayckbourn (who directs most of his own plays) in Dafydd?

"I hope not!" he laughs. "But he is based on a lot of directors. He's quite a small man really, but directors exercise a lot of power, which like all power can be abused. If they could only realise they hold actors in the palm of their hand…"

He once rehearsed an amateur play, a dispiriting experience where half the cast regularly failed to turn up on the flimsiest of excuses. "But I've seen people crawling through the doors with broken legs to get a part in professional theatre," he says.

He much prefers to direct his own plays rather than hand over to someone else, liking the continuity between writing and directing. In fact he usually writes a play the week before rehearsals start, making it just six weeks between the time he puts pen to paper and when the play opens.

Unusually, his next play is already written but doesn't open until next May.
A Small Family Business is one of three plays he will be directing at the National Theatre from November. The others are Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge and Tons of Money, one of the first Aldwych farces.

His six months or so
[1] at the National Theatre directing his own acting company is an experience he is very much looking forward to. After that, he plans to write another play for Scarborough, then possibly a visit to the United States, then... who knows!

"I don't like planning too far ahead," he smiles. "That's the nice thing about working in the theatre - the next show is always a surprise."

Website Notes:
[1] Alan Ayckbourn's sabbatical to the National Theatre was for approximately 18 months.

Copyright: Richmond & Twickenham Comet. 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.