Interview: Capital Magazine (1986)

This interview was published in Capital Magazine on 18 September 1986.

Ayckbourn's National Conquest

by Anne Morley-Priestman

There has always been one playwright renowned as far as expressing the middle class to itself is concerned. That man is Alan Ayckbourn. Why the middle class in particular? Because in this country for over 200 years this class has been the one at which most serious plays have been directed. And it is the class which still most supports the theatre, whether in London's West End or in the thriving regional network which surrounds the capital. Ayckbourn's skill has been to make his audiences laugh both with and at his characters. These often find themselves in farcical situations with close family or dear friends, situations just tippling over towards true tragedy.

Any of us, if we stand back and look at our own tangles of acquaintances, relations and loved ones, could imagine a variation of an Ayckbourn theme in our own life. Neither pain nor joy express themselves necessarily in the grand manner, which in some strange fashion diminishes rather than emphasises such emotions. Straightforwardness, if not quite simplicity, is what Ayckbourn radiates. He is a big man, relaxed and far removed from most people's idea of a playwright.

For the next two years his home is a Docklands flat overlooking the Thames, one of those imaginative disused warehouse conversions, long, much windowed with huge girders supporting the ceiling and old pitted bricks allowed to breathe again at the wall ends.

The move is due to Ayckbourn now being in charge of one of the
National Theatre's groups of actors. He is taking a working sabbatical from Scarborough's theatre-in-the-round which has seen the premiere of all his plays, [1] subsequently staged in London and by any repertory or touring theatre company you care to name since Relatively Speaking in 1965. On Sir Peter Hall's commission he is writing another play for the National Theatre, his fourth for the house. [2] Its predecessor, A Chorus of Disapproval, transferred to the Lyric Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue.

"Of course, there will always be people who object to plays which have a commercial success being staged by a theatre such as the National. But I'm not going there to do just my own play. I like the idea of the different spaces - the Lyttleton (the conventionally proscenium-arched auditorium) is my least favourite. What I'm really looking forward to is working in the Cottesloe. That's a simple box shape, but it's flexible and there's a sort of immediacy, a rapport between the actors and the audience, a firing of attention which you can't always achieve in a more conventional theatre".

It should not be forgotten that, for all the well-crafted appearance of Ayckbourn plays, they have always contained an impishly anarchic element. In
Sisterly Feelings the course of the play and of relationships between the characters is determined by tossing a coin. The Norman Conquests is a trilogy which overlaps. Taking Steps and How the Other Half Loves require a combination stage-scape - a designer's dream (or nightmare). In Act Two of Absurd Person Singular one character plays entirely in dumbshow. When you remember that they are about recognisable human beings in recognisable settings caught up in recognisable situations, the whole idea of the show starting life in a theatre where the actors are completely surrounded by their audience is archetypical Ayckbourn.

How does he write his plays, and where do the ideas come from in the first place? "I get an idea, then put it aside for a time, mentally file it away. Then another idea or character joins it, and another. The actual writing I do quickly, but even then the direction can change. Characters and situations sometimes impose themselves in different ways. Something which can change is emphasis - funny to sad, that kind of thing".

All this belies the fact that Ayckbourn works extremely hard - though he obviously thrives on it - and is unblinkered by the sometimes incestuous nature of theatre.

"The audience at Scarborough is a regular, faithful one but if you live in a town like that, you are bound to meet the people who make up the audience outside the theatre and it puts what you do and what they do into a completely different light. I like that".

Amateur theatre, not surprisingly, has been a theme in more than one play.
Ten Times Table is about a local pageant, Season's Greetings has the sort of entertainment in it which gives certain sorts of puppetry a bad name and A Chorus of Disapproval is about staging The Beggar's Opera. Ayckbourn's plays, like his conversation, suggest that it is the element of role taking, of play acting, in family and social relationships which really serves as inspiration.

Urban man and urbane. Yet his Yorkshire home overlooks the sea and he has chosen to live on the river down in London. Is there a reason? "It's part of one's Englishness, I suppose. I don't think I could live comfortably far from a tidal ebb and flow", although only one of the plays has had a specifically watery location.
Way Upstream, if you saw it in the Olivier auditorium of the National Theatre [3] you will immediately recall, takes place on a river, in a boat.

How did they manage to stage that at Scarborough? "It wasn't easy, but it was much simpler than in the Lyttelton! If you recall, there were endless technical problems - you could say that several previews were literally a wash-out. Of course, it's marvellous to have your play in a theatre which seats a couple of thousand spectators and to have all the superb technical resources of the National available. But up in Scarborough we had theatre-in-the-round - and so we got to know just how to use its virtues and limitations as effectively as possible - before anywhere else did the same sort of thing."

Ayckbourn is a musical man; his father was a violinist. With Paul Todd he has collaborated in several short revues, though his full-scale adaptation of P G Wodehouse's
Jeeves with Andrew Lloyd Webber was pretty disastrous.

"I didn't then realise quite how much music slows things down. Mind you, the book [as the dialogue in a musical is called] would have run for four hours at least just by itself. Then I had to write the lyrics, which isn't easy, as sometimes Andrew came up with the tune before the words. I think he's re-used some of those since! Composers do that. It might be fun to try again."

Prolific is a word which is often used to describe Alan Ayckbourn. He is successful, and that in itself breeds envy. Not every play will perhaps stand the test of time as readily as others. Yet, for all the apparent narrow confines that a group of people connected by blood, marriage or long friendship would appear to dictate, each play makes such frontiers disappear.

He does not so much cut open the flesh of human relationships (especially married ones) but lift the skin, inspect the wound and then let it settle into healing. That may explain why this quintessentially English dramatist has had his plays performed all over Europe, east as well as west, and in the Americas. No man is an island. Theatre is not an insular activity.

Website Notes:
[1] More accurately, all but three of Alan Ayckbourn's plays had premiered in Scarborough by this point.
Christmas V Mastermind (1962) and Mr Whatnot (1963) premiered at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent and Jeeves (1975) premiered at the Bristol Hippodrome before transferring to the West End. In 1987, A Small Family Business would premiere at the National Theatre marking the final Ayckbourn play not to have originated in Scarborough.
A Small Family Business was actually the fifth Ayckbourn to be produced at the National Theatre following Bedroom Farce in 1977, Sisterly Feelings in 1980, Way Upstream in 1982 and A Chorus Of Disapproval in 1985.
[3] Way Upstream was actually produced in the Lyttelton at the National Theatre.

Copyright: Capital. 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.