Interview: Yorkshire Post (1988)

This interview was published in the Yorkshire Post on 16 December 1988.

Child's Play

by Stephen Biscoe

Alan Ayckbourn has the shape of an avuncular uncle; just the person, one might think, to entertain numerous little nephews and nieces. And he is doing just that with his latest play, entitled Mr A's Amazing Maze Plays, at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, Scarborough.

His first children's play was the successful
Ernie's Incredible Illucinations; he wrote that when his own two boys were aged nine and five, and he was happily ignorant at the time that a child's attention span is about 13 seconds. An American survey has come up with that figure in connection with children's ability to concentrate on TV.

Ayckbourn's play requires its audience to pay attention for rather more than 13 seconds. The first break comes after 45 minutes. A trial run, in front of an audience, had suggested that this was not demanding too much, even for five and six-year olds. No-one was seen to stand up and wander around the theatre; there was no general outbreak of chattering, and indeed the only incident which Alan Ayckbourn observed was an attempted programme snatch when a small girl reached forward and tried to grab the programme from the fist of the child sitting in front of her.

The avuncular uncle would seem to have pitched his play at just about the right level. Or levels. He has a theory about that. He says that children visiting the theatre are often fed at an emotional level which only appeals to their sense of fun.

He acknowledges the importance of making them laugh, but thinks that introducing a bit of fear and sadness will enrich their experience, as long as they know that what they are seeing is just a story. To that end, Mr A's Amazing Maze Plays uses two story-tellers as narrators, and after the first act, when the menacing Mr Accousticus has stolen the bark that belonged to Neville, the dog, and the voice that belonged to Mr Passerby, they assure the audience that everything will work out all right in the end. And it does. It is no part of Uncle Alan's role to give small children nightmares.

He does, though, see it as his role to promote the enjoyment of "live" theatre, and he confessed to an ulterior motive in writing his new play: he hopes that at least some of the children who come to see it will develop the theatre-going habit. He wants them to say to themselves: "I'll come back till I'm 77."

Asked why that mattered, he explained that many children are accustomed now to taking their entertainment on a one-to-one basis: Mum and Dad watch TV in the living room, and the children watch TV in their own rooms.
A sense of communal participation is being destroyed, and he thinks that the theatre can enrich people's lives by restoring it. He said: "In a world in which the human element is diminishing this is increasingly important."

New technologies are promoting remote, impersonal communication, and pushing people apart. Theatre, he says, brings them back together again.

"In theatre you have a group of people coming together to share an experience, and if we have done our work properly they will be elevated by the play and the sense of having shared it. In theatre-in-the-round you do feel you are sharing an experience, even more so than in a conventional theatre because other people surround you. You can't help seeing them."

Of his new children's play he said, rather revealingly, that the theme pf Good versus Evil links it with his his other work, "exploring the conflict between Good and Evil is What I've been doing in my adult plays."

The exploration, though, is a lot less subtle in
Mr A's Amazing Maze Plays.

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.