Interview: 20/20 (1989)

This interview was published in the August 1989 edition of 20/20 magazine.

Scarborough Flair

by Steve Grant

Considering his passion for cricket, Alan Ayckbourn's life and career (he scored his half-century this year) make great statistical reading. Author of 37 plays (the same number as Shakespeare, his chroniclers delight in reminding us); earner of more than £1 million a year [1]; the first man to have five plays running simultaneously in the West End; and four in New York where they've named an off-Broadway thoroughfare after him [2] (there is also an Alan Ayckbourn fuchsia courtesy of the Scarborough Fuchsia Society); a Commander of the British Empire and honorary Doctor of Literature at three Northern universities; resident of Scarborough, a hilly East Yorks seaside town from which, despite a recent two-year stint with the National Theatre and the imploring of variously well-heeled Hollywood producers, he has rarely been tempted to roam since he took over from his mentor, Stephen Joseph, in 1972 at the theatre which now bears that name.

For a man whose plays roam the planet, translated into more than 30 languages, produced everywhere from Russia and Japan to Latin America and Africa, whose work deals painfully, hilariously, darkly with domestic discomfiture, personal inadequacy, Scarborough is very important to him. And the 309-seat
Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, a converted middle-floor of a school situated next to a gigantic Tesco's (kinda meaningful that, what?) is very much home, dream-factory, den, retreat, engine-room and bar rolled into one.

Ayckbourn doesn't hail from Yorkshire (he was born in Hampstead) but he loves the toughness, the attitude of 'He can't be much good if he lives 'ere'; the unwillingness to be impressed by those very same statistics, the royal gongs, the Broadway raves, the academic and flowery honours.

"Because it was my fiftieth birthday in April we had most of the national press and six camera crews outside for the latest opening and we still only had 90 people in the next day! Maybe that's why I stay here; everything's such a challenge and this place really is the end of the line. In winter you have to be an Eskimo with an ice axe just to find the front door. So I love them for just coming, you want to stand at the door with a kiss and a mug of punch and then send them home after the party with a good ghost story. That's what it's like for me; an event, a party. That's why it always has to be comedy and what can't be expressed in comedy can be left to someone else."

Since 1977 almost all of Ayckbourn's work has started life in this cosy polygonal Scarborough home, an exception being his successful national production
A Chorus of Disapproval' [3] which Michael Winner has just filmed with Jeremy Irons, Richard Briers and Anthony Hopkins. It's due for release some time this autumn.

Next Valentine's Day his last Scarborough play,
Man of the Moment, opens in the West End with his close collaborator and pal Michael Gambon in the lead; his current Scarborough fayre is The Revengers' Comedies which marks yet another point of departure in his career and reaffirms his need for something with which to surprise his audience.

A Chorus Of Disapproval reworked the morality of The Beggars' Opera through the shady dealings of a local operatic society; Woman In Mind used stage fantasy to create mental breakdown; Henceforward..., still running in London, introduced computers, futurism, robots and artistic paranoia into the equation; A Small Family Business was a dark Thatcherite comedy about shifting moral boundaries. Now The Revengers' Comedies reflects, says Ayckbourn, 'the merriment and abandon' of a pentagenarian birthday boy. It is a darting, flickering epic of comedy, revenge and insanity divided into two halves which can either be seen on separate nights or in one six-hour marathon.

Discussions are still underway for its possible West End transfer in 1991 or 1992 - Ayckbourn hates to rush things, even though his ideal (and usually reality) is to have one play on the go in Scarborough and another in London at the same time.

The Revengers' Comedies, though containing much vintage Ayckbourn hilarity, will need drastic reworking before becoming a blue-chip commercial proposition; audiences just don't buy six-hour evenings or split-up offerings [4], though Ayckbourn insists that one of the reasons he wanted to write it was that all the 'big' plays in the theatrical repertoire seem to be gloomy O'Neills or bloody Jacobeans.

The Revengers' Comedies, unlike so much of his output is almost filmic in its constant change of scene (he explains the claustrophobic settings of his pieces as the reason for their unsuitability for film) and has the same basic premise as Patricia Highsmith's Strangers On A Train and, come to that, Danny DeVito's Throw Momma From the Train.

Two would-be suicides, Henry Bell and Karen Knightley, meet on Albert Bridge, save each other, discuss their beefs and decide to exchange revenge objects. As in
Strangers On A Train only one, a sexily crazed female aristocrat, is serious, and seriously potty. The rest is a tangle, like a cross between Cold Comfort Farm, Howard's Way, Brideshead Revisited and Thomas Kydd, but as yet with far too much soapy water spoiling the crispness of the whole, although when Ayckbourn shines, the sun doth positively dazzle. Death in particular comes out very well; there are several fatalities which are exquisitely wrought and funny in the extreme, including a duel fought over one of the supposed victims in which her crack-shot sadistic husband is accidentally killed by his inept opponent putting down his gun in pacifist (and terrified) disdain.

A man who loves the mysteries of the practical - computers, pin-ball machines, hi-fi, theatres, budgets, plots, how to get an actor across the stage with a cup of tea and sufficient dialogue for his passage, etc - Ayckbourn makes memorable capital out of the comedy of physical and mental embarrassment: there's the scene in
A Chorus Of Disapproval where two women fight over their stricken lover's underpants in a public eatery; Eva the would-be suicide trying to gas herself and being given good advice by an uncomprehending friend on the best kind of oven maintenance [in Absurd Person Singular]; the boozy Christmas couple in Season's Greetings whose front-of-Christmas-Tree bonking session is scuppered when various mechanical presents are activated into noisy life; the terrified trainee serving girl in The Revengers' Comedies trying painfully to serve cornflakes with a ladle from a huge silver tureen. But there's darkness there: catatonia in Just Between Ourselves; hysterical breakdown in Absent Friends; eventual madness in Woman In Mind.

Ayckbourn has always had a way with what Michael Billington once described as those 'Hedda Gablers of the suburbs'. His detractors have called his plays 'bourgeois', dealing in stereotyping and creakingly contrived situations, but his one-time employer at the National,
Peter Hall, is probably nearer the mark when he de scribes them as 'documents of our age'; while, in the '70s at least, he was less fashionable than the famous improviser Mike Leigh, his pieces cover similar social and emotional landscapes, and if Ayckbourn's characters are more well-heeled then it's equally true to say that so are most British theatre-goers. In 1989, his name rests proudly between John Arden and Samuel Beckett in an academically admiring Methuen Theatrefile.

Ayckbourn's methods differ from the improvisatory school of Leigh or Les Blair in that his plays come already given; though he loves and gets on famously with actors, he discourages what he sees as vapid method exercises. His achievement as a
director, notably of other people's work, shouldn't be overlooked: of the 150 or so productions he's mounted, only 40 or so have been of his own plays and his recent production of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge was both a commercial and an artistic triumph in which Ayckbourn showed his mastery of brooding American melodrama and helped Michael Gambon to several acting awards. Gambon thinks Ayckbourn is the best director possible to work with: "He's such fun, so reassuring, calming." And he's far from alone.

Ayckbourn returns the compliment: "I've never been comfortable working with stars. Mike's a star now but he wasn't when we started together and he doesn't act like one. He mucks in. I've never had many run-ins in my time, but I did have a celebrated falling-out with Robert Morley during the first West End transfer of
How the Other Half Loves and maybe he was right; if I was getting him I was going to get his audience, so I might as well use him properly. But I don't know; I just never look after them properly. I think in all honesty that's why I've not worked with Peter Hall's new company in the West End. It wasn't really what I thought he had in mind, what with Vanessa and now Dustin Hoffman: which is all very well, they are great actors and obviously in a commercial set-up you have to pay the rent but I feel that the atmosphere in a 'one plus the rest' company isn't the sort I look for."

After nearly 20 years in the job, Ayckbourn talks raptly about the problems of running the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, from the recent necessity for him to take a small salary (he used to be unpaid) as a 'precedent' to the irritating need to find commercial sponsors and the ways in which economies can be instituted - he believes in spending on actors and cutting back on admin and publicity. There are 14 actors in the present company, while many of the theatre's front-of-house staff are local volunteers or part-timers. Annually the theatre gets over £250,000 from local and regional bodies but that only covers the annual salaries and a few production costs.

His own work at present includes a new children's play; a production of a French play by Henry Becque; a rarely performed George Kauffman and Ring Lardner comedy
June Moon and a new play for adults.

"One thing that does interest me now is writing for children again; I did
Mr A's Amazing Maze Plays last year which was quite fun and worked and now I'm doing my version of Saturday Morning Picture Club, because I think you have to really get children going, not just tell them jokes and yell at them for two hours. You have to scare them, intrigue them. I had this idea of maybe reworking some of my plays for a kids' audience; I had this idea of using the idea from Woman In Mind where she invents a whole dream family which finally takes over and transposing it to a young boy with an imaginary playmate. I had one called Tim. Now that would be a real cliff-hanger, wouldn't it?"

It's part of Ayckbourn's mystery that at 50, a rich, mature, contented, successful figure, he can still talk merrily about kids' theatre and production costs; but then the strangeness and the conviviality, the raw energy combined with what seems at times to be a shyness bordering on panic are a potent mix. He's known hard times: his first play in 1959,
The Square Cat in which he played a teenage pop-star (wish-fulfillment, he's a devoted rock fan still) earned him all of £42 in royalties (typically, it's now the name of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round bistro).

Until his first smash hit,
Relatively Speaking' in 1967, he was living in poverty, dossing on floors, his children sleeping in the bath. In 1971 How the Other Half Loves became the first play to reach Broadway and he was earning £2,000 a week. He's known marriage break-up, personal failure (his collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber, Jeeves, remains for both a rare disaster) and has probably in his time experienced most of the embarrassments and misunderstandings of his characters. Only for Ayckbourn, like Horace Walpole before him, life is a tragedy for he who feels and a comedy for he who thinks.

Today he relaxes with gadgetry, playing pinball machines on Scarborough's sea-front, watching cricket on the small JVC cassette-player-television in his room at the theatre or even watching Pink Floyd during a less than frequent trip to London. He even looks as if he's started shopping for clothes at last. Compared with the usual awful corduroy brown trousers and baggy sweaters he now looks positively designer-esque. On his fiftieth birthday he celebrated with a few friends and family, "well 50 in all", in a well-known Scarborough restaurant, the Lanterna, and followed that with a surprisingly extravagant holiday in the Caribbean for him and his companion, Heather Stoney, who is on the theatre council of management and with whom he lives in a quiet Victorian rectory full of electronic gadgets.

Most of all he'll be rehearsing - the story that he once turned down an audience with the Queen because he was too busy with a new play in rehearsal is far from apocryphal. Plays are still the thing, but he still agonises over them: he writes amazingly quickly when he starts but will put off doing battle with the word-processor for as long as possible. He wrote his classic trilogy
The Norman Conquests in a mere seven days!

What amazes Stephen Wood, a press officer at the National and former PR at Scarborough, is Ayckbourn's "ability to spew out effortlessly whole sequences of facts. It's easy to see that the creator of dazzling devices like the double dinner party in
How the Other Half Loves, the dovetailing in The Normal Conquests, the three floors in Taking Steps, must have a very ordered and logical mind. But in planning a year's work in a theatre you have to be more than a playwright. He seemed to understand from everyone's point of view…"

Ayckbourn is candidly apprehensive about the current unveiling of Winner's
A Chorus of Disapproval which will have a special gala premiere in Scarborough as well as in London because "half the town is in it somewhere". Unlike other playwrights like David Hare and Tom Stoppard, Pinter or Hanif Kureishi, Ayckbourn evidences discomfort with film.

"I like my plays to have a lot happening off-stage. There's a tension, a subtlety in that. I like closed spaces. There's a tendency in film to want to open it out all the time, when do we get the speed-boat scene in, when shall we cut to Minorca, etc. I think Michael's done a fair job and it's well cast but it's not really my play any more. My stuff does work well on telly though. But then it's been very faithfully interpreted."

Though Ayckbourn remains our modern master of the mundane eternals of fife, his stage works have not always been without problems of interpretation. There was the telegram from Czechoslovakia to the effect that
Relatively Speaking was doing well. "ALSO THE MUSICAL VERSION" And the Gay theatre group from San Francisco who wanted to do a version of How the Other Half Loves.

"I was a little sceptical because the play has a key relationship between a married couple, the woman being driven round the bend because of the strains of motherhood. I asked them how they would cope with this problem and they replied, rather chirpily, that it was no sweat. They would substitute the baby for a chimpanzee."

Website Notes:
[1] As a statistic, the providence of this is dubious as although widely reported as 'fact', Alan Ayckbourn himself has never publicly declared how much he has earnt from theatre.
[2] Actually, the thoroughfare - Ayckbourn Alley - was only renamed for a day to mark Alan having four plays running own Broadway.
[3] This is substantially inaccurate sentence. Alan started writing in 1959 and between then and this article's publication, all but four of his 37 plays had premiered in Scarborough.
A Chorus Of Disapproval did not premiere at the National Theatre, it premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round; presumably the author had mixed it up with A Small Family Business, which had premiered at the National Theatre.
The Revengers' Comedies opened in London 1991 uncut and still in two parts which had to be seen in two seperate performances.
[5] Alan's distaste for the film of
A Chorus Of Disapproval is well-known and he is on the record from even before filing began on expressing his regret at giving permission for the production to take place. Despite reports at the time noting Alan was involved in the film, he actually had next to nom involvement and his suggestions on Michael Winner's adaptation were either discarded or ignored by Winner.

Copyright: 20/20. 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.