Interview: Woman & Home (1987)

This interview was published in the September 1987 edition of Woman & Home magazine.

Alan Ayckbourn Interview

by Alan Hill

A string of successes on the London stage and the award of a CBE have made 1987 a memorable season for Alan Ayckbourn, the distinguished
playwright and director. Alan Hill spoke to the man whose disturbing but accurate pictures of middle-class life and personal relationships have fascinated theatregoers for nearly 20 years.

The paradox about Alan Ayckbourn, the most prolific English playwright of modern times, is that he spends very little time actually writing. A torrent of ideas spins on to his word processor in a short period of intense creativity. Work on his annual new play, first performed at his provincial base in Scarborough, occupies only five weeks - and that's from conception to opening performance.

It might be supposed that his company likens this creative frenzy to cowering in the teeth of a whirlwind. The truth, as Ayckbourn explains, is that his actors get excited by the fact that "the ink is hardly dry on the paper". The scripts often fall through their letter-boxes only shortly before the first rehearsal. Ayckbourn's plays gather momentum over "five or six days of very, very short nights".

"Once I have the notion of the play I have to get it down very quickly. A two to three-hour entertainment needs to have a unity about it and, to achieve that, for a short time I need to hold in my head every single strand of the play. On a smaller scale, it's rather like remembering the Bible. You know that Genesis will start to fade any minute and you will be left with Revelations. But for a moment you have total knowledge of where each character is and what each is feeling. After that you could have a bit of difficulty remembering." Ayckbourn believes that his usual routine of a year's gap between plays is best for him. "I have lost one set of voices and found a new lot."

Last year's voices, though, to his undisguised irritation, are continuing to haunt him in his post as director of a group at the
National Theatre. He has been beset by tremors of anxiety. At the heart of the matter is the departure from the usual practice of a Scarborough premiere for his play before it transfers to the London stage in the following year.

The dilemma has involved his latest play, the 33rd all told and the fifth for the National Theatre, but the first to be specially commissioned by them.
A Small Family Business opened at the Olivier Theatre in June.

"I'd put it away in a drawer because I've never taken so long to produce a play. I wrote it in March last year so by rights it should have been on by now and forgotten."

In this instance, Ayckbourn consented to a request by Sir Peter Hall, the Director of the National Theatre, to abandon the usual opening run at Scarborough. "I then realised, to my absolute horror, that for the first time in about 20 years I actually had to send my play to someone, namely Peter, for approval."

Ayckbourn was reassured by the support of actor Michael Gambon, whom he describes as a "marvellous interpreter of my work". Gambon is cast in leading roles in the farce,
Tons of Money and in Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge which have been presented under Ayckbourn's direction at the National Theatre this year, part of his two-year sabbatical from Scarborough. Gambon also agreed to appear in A Small Family Business before it was written. The casting director said: "I've never known an actor sign a contract for a play he hasn't read!" Ayckbourn hoists his hands in glee. "Could you possibly have a nicer compliment than that?"

Now aged 48, Ayckbourn is a Londoner by birth but can boast the status of honorary Yorkshireman after 15 years as
Artistic Director at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in a converted school in Scarborough. He was introduced at an early age to writing. His mother started as a novelist and had four books published by Michael Joseph, who was, interestingly, the father of Alan's great theatre mentor, Stephen Joseph.

Mrs Ayckbourn later became a star contributor to leading women's magazines, writing under the name of Mary James. Alan recalls that his childhood echoed to the sounds of his mother "banging away on a typewriter on the kitchen table".

"She bought me a typewriter when I was small to keep me quiet, so then I began to thunder out my own awful stuff."

As a mature writer, Ayckbourn, for all his unerring, often savage glimpses of human frailties, exudes an avuncular charm. He is a jolly, modest man, much given to exuberant whoops of laughter. In conversation he bats strongly, extravagant drives contrasting with deftly executed cuts. The cricket metaphor is apt for someone who is obsessively preoccupied with the sport.

He is adamant that the biggest recurrent theme of his plays is that people do care about their relationships. "It's just that they handle each other with boxing gloves a lot of the time. The screaming and the shouting are an attempt to get closer, to be caring and loving, and not anything to do with being destructive."

Ayckbourn is the product of a split family. His reminiscences of a daunting childhood mingle humour and sadness. His father left home when Alan was very young and his mother married again - quite shrewdly in her son's words - the local bank manager "to sort of protect her overdraft". The young Ayckbourn was able to observe the manners and foibles of the Sussex stockbroker belt, the middle-class milieu of his future plays, as he accompanied his stepfather and mother to such archetypal places as Chailey, Lewes and Haywards Heath.

At his school, Haileybury, Alan was an enthusiastic member of the dramatic society.
Edgar Matthews, the mathematics master and a "theatre freak", was the man who pulled influential strings to guide the 17-year-old Alan into the professional theatre. As a very junior assistant stage manager, Ayckbourn was ushered into the majestic presence of Sir Donald Wolfit at the Edinburgh Festival. "I left school on the Thursday and was working in Donald's company on the Monday," says Alan.

He remembers the extraordinary personality of Wolfit, one of the last of the barnstorming actor-managers. "He was a most exciting person to have around - I thought all actors were like him. If you wanted a quick crash course in the theatre, he was the man to give it to you."

The three-week season in Edinburgh was followed by the rough and tumble of repertory at
Worthing, Oxford and Leatherhead. It was during this time, in the late 1950s, that Alan made his first excursion to Scarborough and a crucial rendezvous with the "benevolent anarchist", director Stephen Joseph, one of the pioneers of theatre-in-the-round and alternative forms of staging.

"Stephen was one of the great teachers, a man who generated ideas and thoughts. He taught me about the basic rules of playwriting and a lot about directing. He had an irreverence towards the theatre, which is particularly refreshing when you are young. Then you are only in the market for knocking down what is already established and finding exciting new ways for yourself."

Ayckbourn was a founder member of another innovatory company at the
Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent. His first major play, Mr Whatnot [1], reviled by the critics on its transfer to London, was previously a big success in the Potteries town.

"Some people got very excited about this play," recalls Alan. "They said that the only problem I'd have would be where to park the Rolls. In fact, it turned out to be an absolute disaster in London."

After the much-publicised fiasco of
Mr Whatnot, Ayckbourn went off "in grief" to spend six years as a BBC radio producer in Leeds. He was gradually coaxed back into the theatre by Stephen Joseph, who persuaded him to write a play for the 1965 season at Scarborough. This was Meet My Father (later retitled Relatively Speaking and performed with great success by Celia Johnson, Michael Hordern and Richard Briers in London). It was followed by How the Other Half Loves, with Robert Morley in the lead. By 1970, having achieved two West End triumphs, Ayckbourn judged that it was safe to step out of the BBC and stretch his talents.

Coincidentally, following the death of Stephen Joseph, he was offered the post of
Artistic Director at Scarborough. "So there I was, by default again because nothing in my life has ever been planned, in the position of running my own theatre and being able to write without fear of refusal. I'd always wanted a haven where actors could make a picture and leave it up for a few months."

Ayckbourn is a committed regionalist, who, uniquely for a playwright of his distinction, continues to ply his craft out of the limelight, He revels in the challenge of satisfying the demands of the bluntly honest Scarborough clientele, but prefers to postpone the critical scrutiny of London.

Not that he has much to fear here. Nineteen eighty-seven has been a year of continual success for him at the National Theatre and in the West. End. His direction of Julia McKenzie as the distraught Susan in
Woman in Mind helped her to win the Evening Standard's "best actress" award. The, play ran for 11 months at the Vaudeville Theatre. Meanwhile, not far away at the Lyric in Shaftesbury Avenue, audiences flocked to see A Chorus of Disapproval, another long-running Ayckbourn success.

Earlier in the year his major contribution to the British theatre was given official recognition when he was awarded a CBE in the New Year's honours list.

His plays have been translated into 24 languages and are performed throughout the world, from eastern Europe to the Caribbean. Ayckbourn believes that their global popularity is due to the fact that he tends to deal in the big generalities of life-the "births, deaths and marriages" columns of which there are equivalents in most countries in the world.

For all his phenomenal success as a dramatist, Ayckbourn insists that he is a "director who writes". He especially relishes the interaction between writing and directing and "living along with the show".

"I hope that if I have a quality as a director it is the ability to make rehearsals as easy as possible; easy in the sense that actors feel free to create in them. I tend to lead from behind and act as a sounding board."

His precision as a writer has produced the standing joke that no one can change a comma in his plays.

"I do spend a lot of time trying to put the right word in the right place. My actors say my work only becomes difficult when I get it wrong slightly. They say it becomes impossible to remember because I've put 'really' instead of 'also' - something tiny, but the balance of the sentence has been upset."

Ayckbourn concedes that he has personally been beset by just about every single phobia and fault; but says, fortunately, he possesses a detachment from himself, so that he can actually see the processes at work.

"I dare not say how much of myself is in my plays, but it takes up a large proportion. Most of my characters are inspired by people to whom I am very close. I rarely write about strangers."

Bob Peck played the hapless new recruit, Guy Jones, in Ayckbourn's amateur dramatic extravaganza,
A Chorus of Disapproval, when it was at the National Theatre. Peck says: "Alan's plays have a very funny veneer but they always seem to have this dark underbelly which makes them richer and more memorable. He has a very realistic observation of the way people wander, sexually, either actually or in their own heads. Like Chekhov, he also has the ability to see the humour in these situations. One of the things people said about A Chorus Of Disapproval was: 'Is it a comedy?' because, towards the end, it becomes unbearably sad. It is a mess of frustrated emotions."

Ayckbourn himself does not consider that his plays, particularly the last dozen in the canon, can truly be called comedies.

"They are plays that have a lot of humour in them. There are some qualities of laughter which I am more interested in than others. My interest lies in causing that laughter to be slightly guilty and, more often, a quietly joyous recognition of something that members of my audience perhaps thought was quite unique to themselves."

The conflicts involved in the altering role of women and the pressures put upon them in achieving their liberated status have fascinated Ayckbourn all his life. The women in his plays are often desperately lonely and unfulfilled. Their plight has been personified by the disenchanted Susan in
Woman in Mind, who takes refuge in a fantasy family.

This play is a devastating chronicle which maintains a tone of insistent menace, reminiscent of one of Ayckbourn's favourite contemporaries,
Harold Pinter. It carries you down, along with its anguished central character, into the depths of a nightmare. The torment, though, had a tonic effect on one young playgoer. She told Ayckbourn as she left the theatre: "I just feel very positive after seeing your play. This is not going to happen to me!"

Website Notes:
Mr Whatnot was Alan Ayckbourn's sixth play but the first to transfer to the West End.

Copyright: Woman & Home. 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.