Interview: Yorkshire Post (1984)

This interview was published in the Yorkshire Post on 5 May 1984.

Absolutely Farcical

by Michael Hickling

Alan Ayckbourn was at full stretch - the headlong gallop towards the opening of his latest play still had 24 hours to run. The only outward sign of tension however were the elastic bands he twisted round his fingers as he talked.

There was no question that he would snap. The strain is largely self-imposed and he has withstood it, on and off, for 25 years. He wrote his first play for the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round when he was 20.
[1] He was a struggling actor and general dogsbody at the time and it was an unashamed vehicle for himself.[2]

Ayckbourn's latest, the 32nd
[3] for his Silver Jubilee, does not have a part for him. A man whose West End successes are unrivalled and whose plays in the provinces are more widely performed than Shakespeare's, no longer needs vehicles of that sort.

So after a quarter of a century, with a modest life-style and more royalties than he cares to spend, what drives Ayckbourn now?

"I still get enough buzz from the theatre," he says simply. "What's kept me fresh is
Stephen Joseph's maxim that one should constantly break routines and keep wrong footing actors. I think this is why people have tended to stay here longer because the killer in this job is routine."

He is a large, mild, friendly 45-year-old who was clearly relishing the pressure he was under. The new play,
A Chorus of Disapproval, had not existed until a couple of weeks before it was due to go into production. Then, as usual, he had written and dictated at a furious pace, finally delivering the scripts just before rehearsals began.

The idea for the play, which concerns the rehearsals of a small town amateur operatic society, had gestated quietly for long before that, but led to a fraught set of circumstances.

The plan was to use members of a local choral group who would sit in the audience and be required to sing at various points in the action. But the Scarborough amateurs all preferred to be in their own productions and Equity said no as well.

Then copyright snags arose with
The Vagabond King which Ayckbourn had planned to use as the opera-within-a-play. He had to drop it and chose The Beggar's Opera instead. "It's been through Brecht and come out the other side, so it must be good," said Ayckbourn. "And I reckoned that even John Gay's agent must be dead by now."

Two days before the Fleet Street critics were due to arrive, the computer controlled lighting board at the theatre packed up. Ayckbourn had been up a good part of the night, sorting things out, before presenting himself for interview the next day.

"I feel very excited and anticipatory now," he said. "The boat has been launched but I can still shout encouragement and remedies to the cast who are sailing it. Until tomorrow afternoon I can even turn it round.
"But what happens after that will be a big anti-climax as usual. It won't really go as I've planned and when it's over I'll drink too much. Next morning I'll feel awful and ask myself why I don't back out of all this."

No one thinks for a moment that he would. "All this" really suits him down to the ground because as artistic director he can have a finger in every pie. "I'm not awfully fond of the financial side, although I do like to be informed about where the money is going. It's planning the repertoire and the use of resources I find interesting.

"I've had offers to run bigger places, but if I was a full time director I wouldn't have time to write. And the trouble with running something the size of the National is that it takes ten miles to stop.
"I've got a passion that small is inevitably better. A place this size is more efficient and flexible and I'm very fortunate that things are running so smoothly here now."

The theatre exudes a sense of informality and common purpose. The new restaurant development just opened is called, in honour of the boss.
The Square Cat - the title of Ayckbourn's play 25 years ago. The woman who runs it and the rest of the staff are the invited audience for the dress rehearsal. Afterwards Ayckbourn lays on drinks so that the new actors can get to know the people who clean up and serve the coffee.

He comes from Hampstead originally (his father was a musician, his mother a journalist), but the people in the town try not to hold it against him. They seem, in fact, profoundly unimpressed that such a celebrity should exist in their midst. Ayckbourn mostly likes it like that, but a slight edge creeps into his voice: Yorkshire shrewdness can get under the skin.

"Anywhere else you would expect advance booking of some magnitude for a new play of mine. But in Scarborough we do suffer a bit from the "Oh it's just 'I'm down the road there" attitude. If we surveyed our audience I think we'd find that half come from outlying districts. Scarborough people always have a very good reason for not going out anywhere."

But once he has lured them in, the 300 seater theatre is a perfect test-bed for a play which will probably be seen eventually all over the world. "I watch their reaction because they aren't going to give you a second more than they need to. There's no sycophantic adoration - If they're bored they show it. Their faces say, 'This seat has cost me £3.35 and I want every penn'orth.' And, by God, if you've got them smiling after 15 minutes you know you've cracked it"

As a writer though, a degree of anonymity is essential. He described his "favourite lark" as listening to people. Lionised authors only get the chance to do that very selectively, no good for farce material.
If some of the raw material is local, the finished goods from his creative imagination have none of this flavour, and are characteristically Home Counties middle class. "In general I just feel happier with that background. But I do like living here. Like other seaside resorts it has got slightly moribund not knowing quite what to do with itself, but where else would I be able to say eight good mornings to people before getting to work?"

People have discerned a sharper edge to his later characters, a more sombre view of their lives. "If you write an honest picture about a person, sooner or later you're going to hit bedrock of frustration or disappointment or something. There's a tendency to dodge that when you begin.

"Farce Is a tragedy that's been interrupted. All you do is edit it at the right point. If you let a character's life run on before editing - let's say until he's been married ten years - then as a result you'll have a slightly darker, but I hope truer, picture. I've never had any trouble being funny. I spend most of the time now taking out the jokes not putting them in."

Marital disaster is one of the mainsprings of his comedy. "All I'd say about marriage is, don't feel bad if it doesn't work out (his own ended 20 years ago). I got married at 19 and at 25 I was a totally different person - so was my wife. We parted amicably. If we'd kept on one of us would be dead. She would have withered away with unhappiness.

"Now we're in our middle forties we're well adjusted. She's jolly nice to have tea with, but I wouldn't want to marry her anymore. She says I'm very nice now as well.

"There are marriages where people have never had a cross word at 70, but that's not very interesting in a play. What we want to see in a play is someone having a worse time than us."

His farces are stuffed with men who are incompetent. How close to life was that? "I'm inept in some ways - rotten at woodwork but reasonable at electrics and cardboard. I'm not as organised as I might appear. I believe in mastering inactivity to let problems resolve themselves. I don't feel bad about just looking at a wall for three days because by being inactive things happen anyway."

After so long his prodigious facility to create popular and critical successes is unimpaired. Despite outside circumstances the new play, he says, came together very quickly.

"It all gets quicker but it all gets harder. If I do try and honestly improve - and I've got this naive faith that the older I get the better I get - I suppose it's bound to get harder. I've done so much now and been down so many alleys.

"I've got a lot more plays left and I can see a few more years. But I think another 25 is being awfully optimistic."

Website Notes:
[1] Strictly speaking, Alan was 19 when he write his first commissioned play,
The Square Cat, in 1959. He was 20 when it premiered at the Library Theatre, Scarborough.
[2] Alan was initially employed at the Library Theatre as an Acting Stage Manager - a stage manager with limited acting responsibilities.
A Chorus Of Approval is actually Alan Ayckbourn's 31st full-length play.
A Chorus Of Disapproval is notorious for being a very different play when conceived, based around Rudolf Friml's The Vagabond King with Alan intending to use a vast cast of amateur performers within the musical. None of this came to pass and the full story can be found here.

Copyright: Yorkshire Post. 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.