Interview: Sunday Tribune (1986)

This interview was published in the Sunday Tribune on 17 August 1986.

Game For A Laugh

by Ciaran Carty

"Hadlee plays and misses just outside the off stump..."

Alan Ayckbourn has one eye on the television while we're talking. New Zealand are beginning to look like building up a first innings total that could prove decisive in the Second Test at Trent Bridge.

"The 250 comes up with a crisp stroke back past the bowler..."

Each ball is as if Ayckbourn is at the crease himself. Like all wicket-keepers, he rather fancies himself with the bat when he plays for the local club at Scarborough.

"Gower dives at second slip to cut off a certain four..."

A passion for cricket can be misleading. Ayckbourn isn't nearly as typically English as he seems. Least of all in his plays. With
Relatively Speaking and How the Other Half Loves in the late Sixties he appeared to have brought English drama back from the kitchen sink of the 'angry young men' to the clever drawing room comedies of the Noël Coward and Terence Rattigan era.

All his plays are rooted in the attitudes and behaviour of the English middle classes. Ostensibly they're comedies of suburban manners. They operate within the conventions of social rituals with which the audience is assumed to be familiar - the family weekend of
The Norman Conquests, the Christmas parties of Absurd Person Singular, the dinner party of How The Other Half Loves, the local committee meetings of Ten Times Table.

Yet beneath the laughs the recurring obsession is domestic pain. Ayckbourn is in fact undermining the very values he's assumed to represent. Marriage for his characters is invariably destructive. It provides an excuse for male insensitivity towards women. Through it people ruin each other often without even realising what they have done. It's not for nothing that critic Michael Billington dubbed Ayckbourn the "Scarborough Ibsen".

But because he coats his despairing themes with humour and is hugely popular with audiences he's tended to be dismissed as a lightweight. Rather like Hugh Leonard. Giving people a good time in theatre is somehow suspect.

"It's a residue from Cromwell," he tells me stoically. "There's a guilt element about being rocked with laughter. Particularly when you're in company."

Comedy for him has become the natural voice of despair. Its familiar devices and conventions offer ways of surprising audiences with truths they wouldn't otherwise face.

"The human mind is like the human eye. We learn to blink and not concern ourselves with the many horrible things that are happening around us. If we sense we're being got at in a play, we quickly clam up. Although I don't want to get at people, comedy is the way to do it. I've been moved by more comedies than tragedies. Chekhov's in particular. The sadness only hits you afterwards."

He remembers it as the ultimate compliment someone admitting to him after one of his plays: "I wouldn't have laughed if I'd known what I was laughing at."

His jaundiced view of family life is not unrelated to his own childhood experience. His mother wrote stories for women's magazines, his father was leader of the London Symphony Orchestra. Then his mother married a bank manager. On holidays from boarding school he couldn't help observing that her relationship with his stepfather was far from perfect. But he's wary about making too much of this.

"The fact is that nice people don't make good theatre. The most difficult thing to write about are people who are totally happy."

His mother got him a typewriter when he was young. He'd sit at the kitchen table trying to imitate her writing stories. "It was the natural thing to do. I suppose if she'd been a keen cook I'd probably be a chef by now."

He went straight from public school at Haileybury, where he wrote house plays at the end of every term, to being a member of
Stephen Joseph's Theatre-in-the-Round at Scarborough. When he complained that he wasn't getting good enough roles, Joseph told him: "If you want a better part you'd better write one for yourself." Which he did with The Square Cat in 1959, the first of three apprentice works written as Roland Allen. [1]

"I strongly believe that writing is a craft and that playwrights don't often write nearly enough early on."

He quickly made it to London's Arts Theatre in 1964 with
Mr Whatnot only to be slaughtered by the critics. Three years later he became their darling with Relatively Speaking, a comedy of misunderstandings which earned the ultimate accolade of being considered "enjoyable" by Noël Coward. He's been one of the West End's top box-office draws ever since.

Yet all his plays have been written and produced initially for Scarborough, where he combines the function of
Artistic Director and writer in residence. "It's far enough from London not to feel the pressure. You have the freedom to fail without being buried. And of course it means all my plays are accepted! I've never had one rejected. I can write for myself and direct and cast and put a play on in a very short time. Which suits my work method because I write very fast. It's a matter of days rather than weeks. It never takes me more than two weeks to write a play and the entire creative process happens in six weeks."

The fact of working in Scarborough - where the theatre is a converted Victorian schoolhouse that seats only 300 - conditions everything he writes.

"They're plays that can be achieved in a tiny theatre with a small cast. I find the limits a challenge. That I can't have huge casts works commercially in my favour. Writing happens best under certain preconditions. It never helps if one is given an infinite budget and an infinite number of people."

All his plays since the essentially straightforward
Relatively Speaking - "You should always start with an orthodox play, learning the rules, before you break them" - are experiments in the formal possibilities of theatre. Three floors of a house are flattened on a single plain in Taking Steps. Bedroom Farce has three bedrooms side by side on the stage. Two rooms are superimposed on each other in How the Other Half Loves.

"That happened because I was living at the time in Leeds in a council flat which was identical to 200 other council flats. A colleague lived three or four doors down. One evening after a few drinks too many I was trying to find my way around his flat and became completely disorientated. Everything was the same as my flat and yet different."

As well as having the two rooms occupying the same space in
How the Other Half Loves he makes the social status of the two couples different and plays certain scenes on different days at the same time. "I'm intrigued by the use you can make of time on the stage and the way it can be shifted and shaped."

Worried that the audience mightn't understand, he wrote a long programme note explaining the mechanics of the action.

"I needn't have bothered. You should never underestimate an audience. Since the audience occupies the same space as the actors in Scarborough they have to cross the stage to get to their seats. At the interval I noticed that they were subconsciously using the set as the actors had used it. As long as you explain the rule early in a play the audience will imagine what ever you want them to imagine."

In February he took two years off from Scarborough for other work, it particular writing
A Small Family Business for the National Theatre "It's quite a change of pace. You have to deliver a play a year in advance so they can get the right cast!" This time his theme is dishonesty.

"It's about where you draw the line. People steal paper clips in the office without thinking about it. They cheat with their fares on the bus. So I explore a family that shifts imperceptibly from this to being involved in drugs. I suppose I'm moving into morality plays."

Ayckbourn will no doubt go running back to Scarborough. "But it's good to escape all the administrative chores for a while. Not having to dream up a repertoire every season. It's nice to work in other people's theatres where they have all the worries. Let Peter Hall worry instead of me."

At least he now has the time to watch cricket again.

"There's an appeal and Greg Thomas has Hadlee caught by Gooch in the slips for 68 ..."

Website Notes:
[1] Alan wrote his first four plays under the pseudonym Roland Allen (a conflation of his name and that of his first wife, Christine Roland). He wrote
The Square Cat (1959), Love After All (1959), Dad's Tale (1960) and Standing Room Only (1961) as Roland Allen, but after he revived Standing Room Only in 1962, he credited it to Alan Ayckbourn; as a result, only his first three plays are attributed to Roland Allen.

Copyright: Sunday Tribune. 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.