Interview: Yorkshire Evening Press (1988)

This interview was published in the Yorkshire Evening Press on 7 June 1988.

Great To Be Back On Seaside Stage

by Robert Beaumont

When Alan Ayckbourn left his beloved
Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round two years ago to work at the National Theatre, two questions were uppermost in his mind.

Would the cynical London critics, already sharpening their knives, accept this small town boy from the north as a director as well as a writer? And would the Theatre In The Round - so dependent on Ayckbourn in the past - survive without him?

Before he left for the bright lights of London, Alan Ayckbourn was cautiously optimistic on both points. Now he has returned to Scarborough basking in the lavish praise of the critics to sort out a theatre that has been threatening to go off the rails in his absence.

In a scene reminiscent of one of his hilarious farces, Alan Ayckbourn was sitting in the same chair, sporting the same indulgent smile and holding court in the same room when I spoke to him this month as he was when we chatted before he departed for the National. Had he actually moved from this comfortable chair in the intervening period?

Flashing one of those dazzling smiles, which continually light up his rugged, lived-in face, he replied: "Yes, I have moved. But, my goodness, I'm glad to be back."

He remains ambivalent about London; for while he relished the artistic challenge of the National Theatre, he did not appreciate the greedier aspects of the Thatcher revolution which are so marked in the capital.

"For example, I lost count of the number of times I was nearly run over by a Porsche driven by a child," he said, in a thinly-veiled attack on the young City whizzkids who float around in a self-indulgent bubble of cocaine and cash. Now you don't get that kind of behaviour in Scarborough, do you?

Looking back over Ayckbourn's two years in London, Sheridan Morley, the arts editor of Punch, commented: "To us in the south, they have been something of a revelation. When he arrived I was not totally convinced he was a great
director. The Ayckbourn company at the National Theatre staged four productions and it is arguable that they add up to the one late glory of the Hall administration," he added. Certainly they established Michael Gambon, who starred in three of these four productions, as a great character actor.

During his National sojourn Ayckbourn presented the old Aldwych farce
Tons Of Money; A Small Family Business, his own bleak look at the morality of materialism; A View From The Bridge, which author Arthur Miller was captivated by; and John Ford's Jacobean melodrama 'Tis Pity She's A Whore.

"I presided over such a happy company and we did better than I had ever dared to hope. I could not have wished for more," Ayckbourn said. Indeed Ayckbourn won the major critics' (Plays And Payers Award) award for his direction of
A View From The Bridge - a prize which gave him special pleasure because it confirmed - at last - that he had arrived as a director in London.

Meanwhile Ayckbourn forged a firm friendship with the controversial, larger-than-life Sir Peter Hall. "Yes, I'm afraid I'm a Hall man," he said in an almost apologetic tone. So much a Hall man, in fact, that these two giants of British theatre are teaming up together to form a new producing company which will be based at the Haymarket in the West End.
[1]

But don't panic. Ayckbourn's top priority will remain the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round. "I have proved to myself that I can play away from Scarborough and win; now I have to prove that I can take up the reins again," he commented.

In his absence the charming little theatre, tucked away in the centre of Scarborough, has had a rocky time. Although box office income continued to grow by 10 per cent a year and a number of works were premiered, there were rumblings of discontent behind the scenes while two plays had to be cancelled.

Without the calm and steadying influence of Ayckbourn, the administrative side of operations got itself into a tangled mess resulting in the sacking of the general manager Ian Watson, friend and biographer of Ayckbourn. Watson is now a very bitter man indeed as a virulent attack on the theatre in the local press recently proved only too graphically.
[2]

Meanwhile two plays, one by Stephen Mallatrat and one by Peter Tinniswood, had to be cancelled because they were not ready in time. But, as Ayckbourn argued, with so many world premieres being staged at Scarborough, there were bound to have been some casualties.

Since Ayckbourn has returned, the gloom and uncertainty that was hovering over the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round has lifted. The special buzz that seems to accompany this extraordinarily gifted playwright wherever he goes is back.

The event of the year promises to be the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn's 35th full length play
Man Of The Moment on August 10. Unusually for him, he has already completed it. Gone are the days when a new Ayckbourn play would be finished on the day that rehearsals started.

"The National Theatre taught me to discipline my writing. There was no way I could turn up for rehearsals with a new play under my arm. The place is just too big for that," he explained.

Man Of The Moment is about our heroes - and why we worship people who really don't deserve it. It is in the darker Ayckbourn tradition, exemplified recently by the psychologically chilling Woman In Mind; the disturbing Way Upstream and the bleakly prophetic Henceforward….

"I think the Ayckbourn tradition is shifting. It is not as light or as naturalistic as it used to be; there is now an increased element of surrealism in my plays," he said. Certainly it has been a long time since he has written pure farce like
Taking Steps or How The Other Half Loves. "You know, I think it's much harder to write pure farce. Taking Steps, for example, was a pig to finish," he recalled.

I wondered whether Ayckbourn was annoyed when critics lumped him in the same category as Agatha Christie and Francis Durbridge. "Not really. I think they are missing something in my plays, which most other people see. It's their loss."

That fresh, jaunty confidence has increased during his successful sabbatical at the National. So, too, by the way, has the waistline.

There is no doubt that Alan Ayckbourn has returned to Scarborough in an energetic and constructive frame of mind -which is excellent news for the enchanting Theatre In The Round. For the theatre missed Ayckbourn just as much as Ayckbourn missed the theatre while he was away. Welcome back!

Website Notes:
[1] Although this idea was proposed between Peter Hall and Alan Ayckbourn, it never actually came to fruition.
[2] It is not clear how Robert Beaumont came to this conclusion as, officially, Ian Watson left the theatre to concentrate on his writing career. It was never publicly stated by either party that Ian had been sacked; although this does not necessarily mean this wasn't the case. It is true that he penned some very public attacks on the theatre, particularly the press officer Russ Allen, subsequent to his leaving. Further details can be found on our sister website
here.

Copyright: Yorkshire Evening Press. 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.