Interview: Birmingham Post (1989)

This interview was published in the Birmingham Post on 26 August 1989.

Scenes In A World Of Change

by Terry Grimley

The middle class suburban world of Alan Ayckbourn's plays is so familiar it is easy to take for granted. But is it still the same world it was?

It is a quarter of a century since Ayckbourn's first play,
Mr Whatnot, and with a pleasing symmetry the playwright is 50 this year. [1] Is his 1967 play How the Other Half Loves, which Cambridge Theatre Company brings to Birmingham from September 4, a period piece - or can you still do it, so to speak, in modern dress?

"I think you probably can," says Ayckbourn. "I saw it when it was revived in London and I don't think they changed it that much. There's a bit with old currency and we changed that. I noticed the scene where the girl buys some wine and says: 'I hope it's not South African' - that hasn't changed."

How the Other Half Loves contains an early example of Ayckbourn's fascination with theatrical game-playing, when two dinner parties on separate nights are presented simultaneously on stage. This posed a headache for Robin Midgley, who directed the first London production and who, as newly-appointed director of CTC, is also in charge of the revival.

Ayckbourn said: "When I did it in Scarborough I solved it, but for anyone reading the play for the first time it's almost impossible to decide how to do it. When I arrived Robin had spent about 10 days drawing up designs to see how he could do this scene. He looked at me with a haunted expression and said: 'All right - I give up. How do you do the dinner scene?' I said 1,2,3,4 - like that - and Robin said: 'Why didn't you put it in the script?'"

Ayckbourn is unchallenged as Britain's most popular living playwright and among the deceased category only Shakespeare rivals him. He has around 30 plays to his name and it seems that one or other of them is always being performed somewhere.

"I think the earlier ones become themselves and I can say 'Warts and all, you're all right.' I've redirected several of them. Ones that would be difficult to redirect are the more recent ones, even as far back as
A Chorus of Disapproval. My favourites remain the current ones. I avoid all productions of my work other than those strongly recommended by people whose judgment I trust. I get very steamed up if I see something I think is bad. It's usually not been the fault of actors but of directors who've decided the whole thing should be done in bin-liners or something."

Ayckbourn is acutely aware of social change and is always ready to reflect it in his work.

"I think the middle class is expanding ever more quickly. It's increasingly difficult to find a real aristocrat these days and the working class is certainly diminishing, though there are pockets of working men still proud of it, particularly in Yorkshire. But the biggest changes have been in sexual roles. I was watching an old science-fiction film the other night and the female members of the crew were doing the washing up. You would never dare do that now."

Ayckbourn's interest in sci-fi, which he had excluded from his work, finally surfaced in his futuristic
Henceforward…, a play which startled many people. Its inspiration was Ayckbourn's discovery of music "sampling."

"I wanted to write about the act of creation and what you sell out in order to achieve it. I realised that for the first time in the history of theatre you could actually show someone creating. Normally it's 'Emily Brontë sits down left and starts
Wuthering Heights' - which is pretty boring dramatically. You could have her chewing her pencil, or Beethoven humming the opening chords of the Fifth Symphony to himself. The great thing about sampling is that it is stealing from life. It's like when you've had an enormous row with your wife and you put that in your play. You get this reproachful look which says: 'I thought this was just between the two of us?' You feel like a thief in the night."

Thieving and people's attitudes to it were the subjects of
A Small Family Business, which had its first production outside London at Birmingham Rep earlier this year.

"People have different ideas about what it is right to steal from other people. For instance, some people consider it is morally justifiable to steal books because they contain ideas which should be available to everyone. People can be very reasonable about it but it's so dangerous. Where do you draw the line?" One evening at the National Theatre someone was giving a lecture on the play which I didn't know was going to happen. He said it contained all seven Deadly Sins, and it's quite true. I think my plays have become a little more fantastic. But even in
Henceforward… there's the girl who comes on at the beginning to lead us through this world we don't understand and say: 'You're scared? You should be up here!'"

Most of Ayckbourn's plays have been first directed by him at the
Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, Scarborough, where he has been Artistic Director since 1972. However, he unveiled A Small Family Business during a two-year sabbatical at the National Theatre, where he also won the Plays and Players' Director of the Year Award for Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge. Now he is back at Scarborough with two more plays, Man of the Moment and The Revengers' Comedies, premiered and still to be seen in London.

"I always say I'll leave Scarborough when it leaves me. We're short of money and we have a tough time in the winter but there's a smashing group of people and it's fun to work here rather than spend an hour being choked to death trying to get to the National," he said. "We get quite a cosmopolitan audience but it's interesting how the further people live away from us the more enthusiastic they are about coming. We've got a party of 30 Japanese flying specially from Tokyo to see my play next week but it's difficult to get people from Malton, a few miles away, to come."

Website Notes:
Mr Whatnot was not Alan Ayckbourn's first play. His first play was The Square Cat which premiered at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1959. He would not write Mr Whatnot - his sixth play - until 1963.
[2] Alan would later firmly change his opinion regarding this subject and now believes all his plays are period pieces which are best served by producing them in the period during which they were written.
[3] At this point, Alan had written 37 plays.

Copyright: Birmingham 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.