Interview: The Observer (1986)

This interview was published in The Observer on 18 June 1986.

King Of Comedy

by Steve Grant

For a writer who cares about his texts and is regularly translated into more than 30 languages, Alan Ayckbourn has met with more than the occasional problem of interpretation.

"Once I had a telegram from Czechoslovakia telling me that my play
Relatively Speaking was doing fine. There was a PS: 'The musical version is also doing very well.' Then there was the gay group in San Francisco who wanted to do How the Other Half Loves. I was a little sceptical, because the play has a key relationship between a married couple, the wife being driven round the bend because of the strains of motherhood. I asked them how they would cope with this problem and they replied, somewhat chirpily, that it was easy. They would substitute the baby for a chimpanzee."

Now well into the menopausal phase at 46, thickened out by success and good Yorkshire living, Ayckbourn still has an almost awesome energy, not surprising in someone who almost wryly admits to writing his plays in weeks rather than months or years. Though he can leave the accountants to mull over the seven-figure financial empire, turn a blind eye to the linguistic shortcomings or directorial liberties in the Madrid, Frankfurt or Tel Aviv Ayckbournia, writing and directing is what he does best and compulsively. This month the National Theatre production of his excellent
A Chorus of Disapproval, directed by Ayckbourn, moves to the Lyric. He's also broken with superstition: A Small Family Business, his first play for a theatre other than his beloved base in Scarborough [1], has been delivered well before time to the National for production at the Olivier. He's taking over a company there as well as taking his own company of actors [2] for a production in each of the National's three auditoria: in the Lyttelton, the pre-Ben Travers Aldwych farce Tons of Money; and in the Cottesloe, Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge. [3]

'It's the meat in the sandwich,' he chortles with an almost wholly disguised note of defensiveness.

Ayckbourn has always admitted that he cares what people think about him. Though it's said with a smile on his face, he recalls epithets like "French Window School" (about his first major success
Relatively Speaking - "the only play I've ever written with French windows in it"), [4] the "cocktail cabinet dramatist" ("I've never had a cocktail cabinet"), or the double-edged compliment given him by reps throughout the country - "Oh, yes, when we're desperate then we can can always fall back on Agatha Christie or Alan Ayckbourn."

"It makes any up-and-coming director scared to do a play of mine in case everyone thinks that he's on the slide. I even do it myself, as when I was talking about doing a Neil Simon play at Scarborough recently. And I suddenly felt a degree of apologia coming over me and I thought,'Why am I apologising for doing Neil Simon? He's a bloody good writer!'"

Ayckbourn is a bloody good writer, too, and though he has suffered on occasion in a theatrical landscape that has often begged for big plays about public themes, he has matured and prospered into a premier social comedian, a satirist able to combine laughter with pity in a uniquely entertaining way. Like Horace Walpole he obviously believes that life is a tragedy to those who feel and a comedy to those who think; comedy has been his chosen instrument - "Anything that can't be expressed through comedy I simply leave to others." But though the comedy in his plays can make audiences weep (like the scene in
A Chorus Of Disapproval where two women fight over their stricken lover's discarded underpants in a public eaterie), his plays often contain characters going through abject misery only to be wholly misunderstood by their well-wishing, solicitous friends and neighbours. Fancy putting your head in the gas oven and people thinking you were trying to clean the cooker… Eva in Absurd Person Singular is driven towards such aborted suicide: Diana in Absent Friends to hysterical crackup; Vera in Just Between Ourselves into catatonic silence; Susan, in his recent Woman In Mind, was driven to construct an entire family of fantastic stand-ins to compensate for hideous, mundane reality. As Michael Billington has written in the Guardian, few contemporary writers of either sex have such a way with those 'Hedda Gablers of the suburbs'.

I tell Ayckbourn about an interview with Neil Simon in which he told me that he'd never been forgiven for never having cut off his ear like Van Gogh. Ayckbourn puts his own lack of angst down to his public school training - he went to Haileybury where he wrote poetry and belonged to the drama club. "They teach you two main things - never look like anything takes any effort, and if you happen to be ignorant about anything then have the arrogance to think that it doesn't matter." He says that people used to get very miffed when he admitted that he'd knocked off a Chekhovian masterpiece in "five minutes". But then plays tend to germinate for a year beforehand and, true to superstition, he won't open anything in London unless he's got something on the go at Scarborough, where he still lives and has been director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round since 1970.

"Working at Scarborough has given me a base, has sheltered me somewhat from the rigours of London critics, but most importantly it's given me a sense of practicality. Basically we had to pay the rent and if you do comedy then you're halfway there. We did
The Brontës play recently and the audiences were terrible. I asked these old ladies why they didn't want to come and they replied: 'It's 'orrible. They all die.'"

When Ayckbourn started out as an
actor, he was a passionate devotee of the Angry Young Man school of his formative years. He started, very experimentally, with plays that were '80 per cent mime', [6] until his mentor Stephen Joseph convinced him into having a bash at a "well-made play, just so you know which rules to break and what they are." [7] The rest, as they say, is history: 33 plays later [8], the only sign of writer's cramp is a self-imposed decision to write only one play a year.

"There's this daft idea that I spend all the year doing my own work, which is of course idiotic." But Ayckbourn remains an old-fashioned artist: unlike Mikes Leigh or Bradwell, who often cover the same social terrain, his plays arrive fully-formed, his actors are discouraged from improvisatory flippancies. And his craft has certainly matured, even though the remarkable
The Norman Conquests, a trio of three completely independent but finely cross-cutting plays, was completed more and than ten years ago. In Bedroom Farce he completely rewrote the genre's rules; in A Chorus of Disapproval he draws parallels between Gay's The Beggar's Opera and a bunch of Yorkshire amateur operatics whose attempt on the eighteenth-century operetta is a farrago of crooked deals, attempted adulteries, social climbing and low-rent villainy.

Though it arrives at the Lyric with an almost wholly new cast it can confidently be welcomed as one of the best nights out in town. "Yes, I am good at good nights out, but then I firmly believe that the more you make people laugh, the more you make them think afterwards. Anyway, I'm looking forward to it. For one thing, if I've done nothing else, I do seem to be able to create a good atmosphere in any company I direct. Stephen Joseph once told me that there wasn't anything much to directing. 'You just have to create an environment in which people can create.' An easy thing to say, a hell of a thing to accomplish."

Website Notes:
A Small Family Business was actually the fourth play Alan had written for a venue other than the Library Theatre or Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round in Scarborough. He wrote Christmas V Mastermind (1962) and Mr Whatnot (1963) for the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent and his and Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Jeeves premiered at the Hippodrome in Bristol before transferring to Her Majesty's Theatre, London in 1975.
[2] Alan Ayckbourn took a two year sabbatical from the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, to become a company director at the National Theatre between 1986 and 1988.
[3] Alan eventually directed four productions rather the original contracted three. The fourth was John Ford’s
’Tis Pity She’s A Whore, which was brought into the repertory when A View From The Bridge transferred into the West End.
[4] Actually, there are no French Windows in the original script for
Relatively Speaking which was first produced in-the-round in 1965 at the Library Theatre, Scarborough. When the play transferred to the West End in 1967, the end-stage set featured French Windows leading to the play's association with the fixtures. In 1999, Alan Ayckbourn would write his first play involving French windows with House & Garden; this was largely because the play featured the French actress Sabine Azema and Alan was taken with the idea of a French actress making her first entrance through French windows!
[5] Alan Ayckbourn became Artistic Director of the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1972 not 1970.
[6] This was actually his sixth play,
Mr Whatnot (1963). His first two plays - The Square Cat (1959) and Love After All (1959) - were farces; his third and fifth - Dad’s Tale (1960) & Christmas V Mastermind (1962) - were family plays for Christmas and the fourth - Standing Room Only (1961) - a situation comedy set on a gridlocked bus in a future London.
[7] This was his seventh play,
Relatively Speaking, which premiered at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1965 before being produced to great success in the West End in 1967.
[8] The 33 plays figure makes no sense in the context of this paragraph, nor is it accurate. Alan’s then current play
A Chorus Of Disapproval was his 31st full-length play.

Copyright: The Observer. 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.