Interview: Today (1986)

This interview was published in Today on 9 November 1986.

Chorus Of Approval

by David Shannon

Describing Alan Ayckbourn as a "successful playwright" is a bit like saying Diego Maradona is "good at football" or John Paul Getty "well off'. At least one in every 20 plays now staged in Britain is by him, making him even more popular than Shakespeare.

His plays have been translated into 24 languages and back in 1975, five ran simultaneously in London's West End. Famous in America too, he impressed one San Francisco gay men's theatre company so much they asked permission to stage his
How The Other Half Loves — even though it concerns a woman struggling with the trials of motherhood. Their plan was to replace her baby with a chimpanzee.

Now 47, he is tall, genial, roly-poly and a strange blend of confidence and shyness. He rarely looks you in the eye and frequently swallows his words, as if nervous of you hearing them. Unlike most of his characters, though, he is honest, modest, sharp and a genuinely witty conversationalist.

director as well as a writer, he started as an actor, joining Donald Wolfit's company at the age of 17. He began writing while in Scarborough at Stephen Joseph's Library Theatre in an effort to provide more interesting parts for himself.

His first major success was in 1967 with
Relatively Speaking. [1] That he wrote the book and lyrics for the musical Jeeves - Andrew Lloyd Webber's only failure to date -has not been held too much against him, and Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests, Just Between Ourselves and Bedroom Farce have all helped to consolidate his reputation as what one critic has called "the Kingsley Amis of the stage". A Chorus of Disapproval and Woman In Mind, which he wrote and directed, are both now running in London - and both doing very good business.

Artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round since 1972, he recently began a two-year "working sabbatical" as a director at the National Theatre. His hand-picked company of actors includes Simon Cadell, Michael Gambon and Polly Adams, and its first production - Tons of Money by Will Evans and Valentine - opened at the Lyttelton last Thursday.

The play is a 1920s farce about a silly ass who impersonates a relative to claim an inheritance. A huge success in its day, it flopped when last revived 18 years ago. Ayckbourn was confident it would not flop again: "It contains plenty of inspired lunacy. An old man came to see it who remembered the original as very funny. He didn't hit me afterwards - so presumably it wasn't too disastrous."

Later we can look forward to Ayckbourn
directing Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge and a new play of his own - A Small Family Business, due next year.

Ayckbourn's directing is noted both for its emphasis on physical comedy and keen attention to the text - "I am known as the man who says: 'You missed out the comma'," he says. His writing combines wild farce with lacerating insights into failed human relationships. He avoids politics and global issues, concentrating on domestic uglinesses instead.

"Some writers go out and look for a theme," he says. "I've never said: 'Right, now I'm going to write a very serious play about world shipping.' My characters just stagger in and start behaving."

Why, then, do they always behave so badly? "It provides better dramatic material," he says. "Nothing is more boring than watching two smug, successful people in love on a stage together."

Ayckbourn's parents separated when he was five. His mother went on to marry the local bank manager, then divorced again. Ayckbourn married actress Christine Roland when he was 19. They "parted amicably" six years later after having two sons. More recently, he has shared his home with actress Heather Stoney.

Has his ability to detect emotional inadequacies in others stopped him making the same mistakes? "Not at all. My great advantage as a dramatist is my great disadvantage as a human being: I have most of the faults of our race all in one person. I often catch myself behaving exactly like my characters."

The late Ben Travers described Ayckbourn as "the outstanding comedy writer of this century." The hugeness of his success, though, and the speed with which he knocks out his plays (he has already written over 40) lead others to accuse him of being "lightweight", "cosy" and (horror of horrors) "too commercial".

His humour is sometimes very predictable, his characters too stock, but it is daft to suggest he does not take risks; stage props for
Way Upstream included a cabin cruiser and 6,000 gallons of water; Woman in Mind is a "comedy" about a woman having a nervous breakdown. [2]

"Whatever else I am," he says, modestly, "I am a fairly good craftsman. If a chap is walking across the stage with, the tea things I tend to give him enough lines to get to the other side."

His talent for packing in audiences to watch his characters transport tea things has won him two years at the National. Only a churl would deny he deserves it.

Website Notes:
Relatively Speaking actually premiered in 1965 at the Library Theatre, Scarborough. It found fame in 1967 with its West End premiere.
[2] Alan Ayckbourn has never himself described Woman In Mind as a 'comedy'. He dislikes the labelling of his plays and refers to them predominantly as 'plays'.

Copyright: Today. 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.