Interview: Irish Times (1985)

This interview was published in the Irish Times on 22 January 1985.

A Visit To The Theatre Magician Of Scarborough

by Carolyn Swift

Alan Ayckbourn is indisputably England's most prolific and successful contemporary playwright and the packed houses at Dublin's Gate Theatre throughout last summer for Brian de Salvo's production of his thirtieth play, Taking Steps [1], proves he is equally popular with Irish audiences. So, hearing the production is to be brought back to the Gate on February 4th, I set off for Scarborough to talk to the playwright in his Georgian house, high above the harbour on the headland between the North and South Bays, below the steep ravine isolating Scarborough's 12th century castle.

The East Yorkshire coastal resort
[2], famous since the 17th century as a spa and the setting for Richard Brinsley Sheridan's play A Trip to Scarborough, is now home to Ayckbourn, although he was born in Hampstead five months before the outbreak of the second World War. From 1957, however, when he first went to act with Stephen Joseph's Theatre-in-the-Round Company, then sited in Scarborough's 19th century Public Library, the town grew to become the focus of his life, so that intervals of working as a BBC Drama Producer in Leeds or directing at Stoke-on-Trent or in London always ended in a return to Scarborough. As Director of Productions at the Stephen Joseph since the latter's death in 1967 [3], with the company moved into its own 300-seat theatre in a converted school, where the Snack Bar is called The Square Cat after Ayckbourn's first play, he now lives in what was formerly Stephen Joseph's home.

There, over mugs of coffee brought by Heather Stoney, with whom Ayckbourn made his last appearance as an actor in 1964 at Rotherham in
Two For the Seesaw, I asked if the citizens of Scarborough ever objected to his borrowing the names from over their shop windows for his characters, and was it only names he borrowed?

"Well, I try not to write about them too obviously - and they don't usually recognise themselves. I remember one woman saying to her husband: 'But my mother's not like that!' and he answered: 'Well, she is rather!' But the master of the local school recognised himself in
Intimate Exchanges and quite enjoyed it In fact, he asked me who would be playing him in his London production." [4]

Since Ian Watson, in
Conversations with Ayckbourn mentions only his writer mother and professional musician father, I asked if he had any family connections with the theatre?

"My mother's mother was a well-known male impersonator," he told me. "Lilian Morgan was her name - she was Welsh, of course - and she used to tour the English music halls."

Perhaps, subconsciously, that made him choose acting, rather than following his mother into a career in journalism, to which he was also attracted. But the fact that the
French master [5] at his public school cast him in productions of Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth, which toured Holland and the US, respectively, probably tipped the balance, though he also edited the house magazine and wrote revue sketches for end-of-term concerts. When the same master gave him an introduction to Donald Wolfit his professional theatrical career began, as an assistant stage manager, who also played a sentry in The Strong Are Lonely. Wolfit being to England what Andrew McMaster was to Ireland - the last of the great actor-managers - it is interesting that the former should have spawned Ayckbourn, and the latter playwright Harold Pinter.

Ayckbourn himself feels that the old system by which actors began as assistants in stage management gave his technical experience that greatly influenced his writing, experience which grew rapidly when Stephen Joseph, believing all his company should be total theatre people, encouraged him to work on sound and lighting.

How the Other Half Loves, written in 1969 and seen in Dublin at the Olympia in November, 1972, was probably the first of his plays to use this technical expertise, noticeably to achieve extra comedy by setting the living-cum-dining rooms of both the Fosters and the Phillips in the same stage area, and playing simultaneously scenes taking place at different times in the two homes.

I asked if his creative ability was stimulated by setting himself technical problems of this kind, because I had noticed that, even as a director of other people's work, he seemed to prefer plays requiring great ingenuity to stage in a small space, like that of the Stephen Joseph.

"Well, it's much more interesting," he said. "I've a lot of fun working out the technicalities and that stops me becoming bored. And I couldn't write any play without knowing exactly how-it should be staged."

The next Dublin production with an unmistakably Ayckboum gimmick was
The Norman Conquests trilogy, though his Relatively Speaking, Absurd Person Singular and Bedroom Farce were staged in May, 1969, July, 1975, and July, 1978, respectively, the first at the Gaiety and the last two in the Gate. Three plays, each complete in themselves, but running concurrently in stage time, The Norman Conquests has the scenes set in the living-room all in the first play, those in the dining-room in the second and in the garden in the third, so that when a character exits by the French windows in the first play, you know he will be entering a scene in the third.

But for sheer wizardry, Dublin was unprepared for
Taking Steps. Here the action over three floors of a house and the two staircases linking them is compressed on to one level, the consequent confusion of action mirroring the confusion of misunderstandings amongst the characters. For Ireland had not seen the earlier Sisterly Feelings, written in 1979, for which he wrote four possible versions, making the one seen by the audience on any given night dependent on the toss of a coin at the end of the first scene.

"That makes it fun for the cast too," Ayckbourn grinned, "and I thought it must be rather like working in the old drama and variety companies, where the actor-manager would only pick the final sketch for the night after the raffle for the five pound note."

I said it must keep them on their toes.

"Since then I wrote
Intimate Exchanges. That has sixteen endings. And then, last year, there was my thriller called It Could Be Any One Of Us."
"And I suppose it could?"

"After drawing cards, the cast would only know if they were not to be the murderer that night, but they wouldn't know who was."

"Like playing 'Murder'."

"That's right. You see, it must be possible for them all to have done it. So often in detective' stories it's only afterwards that you learn about the aunt in India. It's easy enough to give them all motives, but if you're going to play fair with audiences they must all have the opportunity and the character to do it too. So you must work out how and why each one could have done it, and that's really a different play for each, so I just wrote them all."

"But why the alternatives in
Sisterly Feelings?"

"The play was about choice. And when you write farce for a theatre without doors you have to have an alternative gimmick. This is mine."

"But not the only one?"

"No. In
Suburban Strains, I start the story simultaneously in the middle and at the beginning, like you can on film. I filch a lot from films. Way Upstream owes a lot to John Boorman's Deliverance.

"It's one of my darker ones - two couples going up river in a cabin cruiser and really nasty things happening. It's about the nature of leadership really. And it has quite an optimistic ending for once."

Were there any technical funnies in it?

"Well, there's this boat bobbing about in the water and suddenly it's pouring rain and everyone's soaked. Then there was,
Making Tracks. That's the musical set in a recording studio, with music by Paul Todd. You know, the musical director on the show you saw last night" (Sandy Wilson's His Monkey Wife).

I had seen Ayckbourn in the bar after the show, beneath a series of framed programmes of each production in chronological order, surrounded by his young cast, like the father of a large family.

"Yes, I like to think of them like that. Even when, like now, they're not all part of a permanent company. It just happened that several people left recently after being with us for years, so the company's younger than usual at the moment."

"And when will they be doing another Ayckbourn play?"

"My next one's scheduled to open in June, so I'll write it in April and rehearse in May. I usually set aside four weeks each year for writing and actually get down to it for the last two. I can never really get started till rehearsals are almost on top of me."

It seemed unbelievable. He is only 45, yet he has written 40 plays, not counting the different versions. But he was honest to the point of bluntness.

He is up and down to London just now, preparing his forthcoming production of
A Chorus of Disapproval for the vast Olivier stage of the National Theatre. It is about an amateur opera production and I asked if, like most of his plays, it is partly based on experience.

"Well, yes, I've directed amateur productions."

"And you did it in Scarborough first?"

"I do everything in Scarborough first!"

Website Notes:
Taking Steps is Alan Ayckbourn's 24th full-length play.
[2] Scarborough is actually in North Yorkshire.
[3] Alan Ayckbourn was first appointed to the seasonal post of Director Of Productions in 1969, two years after Stephen’s death. He was appointed the company’s Artistic Director in 1972.
[4] There's possibly some transposition here as Alan Ayckbourn more frequently recalls it was a local councillor, Maurice Plows, who recognised himself in
Ten Times Table and asked who would play the part in London.
[5] The French master at Haileybury was
Edgar Matthews, whom Alan cites as one of the most influential people in his life.
[6] Whilst Alan Ayckbourn did work with several amateur companies in Scarborough during the late 1950s and early 1960s, there is no record of him directing for them. However, he did direct amateur productions of his plays
Mr Whatnot and Relatively Speaking for Leeds Art Theatre.

Copyright: Irish Times. 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.