Interview: Daily Telegraph (1989)

This interview was published in the Daily Telegraph on 2 June 1989.

Ayckbourn's Birthday Indulgence

by Ian Williams

Alan Ayckbourn is indulging himself for his fiftieth birthday. The full version of his new production The Revengers' Comedies run to four acts and five hours.

"I thought that if tragedies were allowed to go on at some length, why not comedies?" he asks. It is not just the duration which is expansive. "It has 25 to 30 sets, and 14 actors playing 18 characters," he says, hoping for an Equity job opportunity award for his pains.

It has a cinematic sweep, and he claims that it should really be a "film noir", a strangers on the train gothic in black and white, as two people tired of life meet and decide to swap revenges. The cinematic technique is a reversion to his roots, when he claims he and his brother watched every film in the three local picture houses at least twice.

The play will receive its premiere in Scarborough, at the
Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, like all but three of his other three dozen works. Many metropolitan critics will only notice it when it hits the West End, but potential producers from all over the world will be in Yorkshire to see what they can take away with them.

Ayckbourn claims that success has followed the injunction "Go North, Young Man". Beginning life in Hampstead, he-went to Haileybury, the public school which was once the training college for the East India Company, and which continued turning out District Commissioners for the British Empire. Fortunately for the British stage, imperial career opportunities were limited by the time he left.

"My theatrical career was launched by the French master
Edgar Matthews. He not only encouraged me to act, he pulled the only string he-had in the theatre, Donald Wolfit, to get me work."

Then he moved to
Stoke where he helped found the New Victoria theatre, to Leeds, and to Scarborough. [1] "Every career move seemed to be northwards," he says.

Southerners may see eccentricity in his self imposed exile north of Milton Keynes but he detects as much shock at his profession. "If you mention in polite society that you work in the theatre, you're treated like some sort of dole dodger," he says, implying that living in Scarborough is almost excusable by comparison.

His arrival in Scarborough, and his writing career, he owes to
Stephen Joseph, who reintroduced theatre in the round into Britain.

"There was some distance between writers and the theatre in those days. Most playwrights were either famous and living in France, or dead. He encouraged everyone to write, including me, and after a while the plays became more successful than my acting, or my directing."

The laid back-self-restraint shows signs of strain when he speaks about theatre in the round. His reasons are pragmatic, but his enthusiasm indicates a proselyte's zeal.

"It was cheaper - there was a lot less scenery - and more importantly, it was more intimate for the audience. At a time when live stage performances seemed threatened by TV, it was 3D theatre," he remembers his early experience of it.

From a director's point of view, he explains, "there's nothing quite like it for welding a company together". He points out that no prima donna can dominate a stage in the round, and every actor needs the full support of the cast for success.

When Stephen Joseph died, Alan Ayckbourn accepted the invitation to become artistic director of the theatre in Scarborough, which he still holds two decades later.

The company then performed for 13 summer weeks on the first floor of the public library. "It was a hit-and-run operation, like Val Doonican at the seaside. Then we nibbled into autumn, extending the season. But whatever we do, we can't seem to conquer February," and he adds optimistically "yet".

The expansion continued until the public library had to choose between the theatre and their books. Unimaginatively they chose the latter. The theatre now has the middle floor of the Scarborough Technical College.

How do tales of the lives and loves of southern types translate to Yorkshire audiences? "Well two thirds of our catchment area is fish," he explains flippantly. So far, consumer testing on Yorkshire audiences seems to have worked. As the most popular export since pudding, his plays are produced across the globe.

For every production in Britain, there are four in Germany, while in Japan there is a permanent exhibition of his work. We muse silently on the potential for a Noh version of
The Norman Conquests, while he considers how what appears to be quintessentially Home County suburbia translates across the globe.

"They're about the basics, really. Birth, death and marriage," he suggests.

His early work was often regarded as lightweight, somehow frivolous because of its lack of an obvious social or political message. Critics now detect a darker vision, as if dark clouds had chilled those southern lawns.

One described
Henceforward… as "X certificate Noël Coward" which obviously tickled him. He admits that his plays increasingly reflect a bleaker, blacker view of life, but, as he pointed out, recent revivals of his early plays have a similar feel. "So was it always there, or is it just more apparent now?" he asks.

Unlike the agitprop Left-wing playwrights he scorns so much, he insinuates his dissatisfaction rather than bludgeons it. "I'm British enough to say 'what about the other chap?' when I feel a slanted view. We are, I thank God, a nation which doesn't like preaching."

The messages of his plays are "vague things, like thou shall not kill, thou shalt be honest". It is clear that he regards them as subversive messages in these materialist times.

Website Notes:
[1] Alan did not go to Stoke straight from working with Donald Wolfit. He worked at the Library Theatre in Scarborough from 1957 and then moved to Stoke in 1962 as a founding member of the Victoria Theatre; this as a result of working with Stephen Joseph who founded both the Library and Victoria Theatres. He then joined the BBC in Leeds from 1965 to 1970 before returning to Scarborough as Artistic Director of the Library Theatre in 1972.
[2] Stephen Joseph died in 1967 - while Alan was still working for the BBC as a Radio Drama Producer. Although he was actively involved with the Library Theatre - particularly in 1969 and 1970 - he did not take over Stephen's role of Artistic Director until 1972.

Copyright: Daily Telegraph. 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.