Interview: The Independent (6 March 1991)

This interview was published in The Independent on 6 March 1991.

Children In Mind

by Sarah Hemming

"I run the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. Two years ago I became aware that the audience was getting older, I was getting older and there was a severe danger that one day we'd all drop dead and there would be no one left in the theatre."

Alan Ayckbourn decided to take action. He wrote
Mr A's Amazing Maze Plays, a drama for children - the first he had written for nearly 30 years.[1] And he enjoyed himself so much that he wrote another, Invisible Friends, and then another, Callisto 5. This month, when Invisible Friends opens at the National Theatre, London will get its first taste of this new strand in Ayckbourn's work.

"We were doing the odd children's show before that, but they always seemed a bit gungey to me," says Ayckbourn. "You threw your brain out of the window to do them. And I was watching some of the kids coming to the adult drama, sitting through pretty heavy stuff. I thought, what's the big deal with kid's drama? Perhaps the plays have to be fractionally shorter, and I think you don't want to leave the children emotionally scarred - but otherwise it's probably much nearer to adult drama than I thought it was. Which I suppose is a bit like discovering the wheel really, after writing for so long!"

This is not to say that
Invisible Friends offers seven-year-olds a taste of the rancid, bitterly funny view of stale, middle-class marriage with which Ayckbourn's comedies are usually associated. The play focuses on Lucy, a misunderstood 14-year-old, whose parents are so boring and set in their ways, and whose brother is so uncommunicative, that she invents an invisible friend. One day, when she is feeling particularly lonely, her friend brings along an entire invisible family. At first sight they are far more palatable than Lucy's real relatives - but not for long.

This may sound familiar: in
Woman In Mind, one of Ayckbourn's saddest comedies, a woman who is emotionally neglected by her husband invents an ideal family. "I call it Woman In Mind [2] for children," he agrees. "Then in Callisto 5 the little boy has only a robot for company. That was my Henceforward… for children [3]. The running joke is that I'm rewriting all my canon for children - but I don't think it's quite got to that stage."

But there are, perhaps, parallel themes between the adult and children's drama.
Invisible Friends may be a comic, cautionary tale about the trouble that ensues when wishes come true, but it is also a plea for understanding. Just as much of Ayckbourn's adult work derives its humour from the inability of some married couples to understand one another, Invisible Friends depicts one family where communication is at a minimum. As with his other work there is a sad shadow behind it. "A lot of my plays are about people who attempt to find alternative existences outside their real lives," he says. "Because their real lives are so boring or so sad."

Invisible Friends is by no means sombre, however - it is upbeat and funny. In a sense, Ayckbourn's children's plays could be seen as a counterbalance to his adult drama, which has become increasingly dark.
Ayckbourn feels that the two are complementary: "They seem to be running rather close. Children's plays are about the basics. And a lot of my adult plays these days, when you boil them down a bit, are about the basics - about good and evil. In
Man of the Moment you have evil meeting good. I've met people who are positive, good, life-asserting people who enliven and lift the people around them, and bad people, who do the reverse. It's often denied, but I do believe there is a spiritual tide that runs both ways. So I'm exploring that and going back to basics - in several senses."

In form, as well as theme, the work is complementary. In
Invisible Friends Ayckbourn is able to use drama to represent physically a character's double life: to show two worlds, real and imaginary. He is also able to make the instant leaps of imagination that children's drama permits - an anarchy that the impish streak in him clearly loves. Critics have noticed that his adult work was already becoming more experimental. "I think my plays are getting more free," he agrees. "I've been through various phases. There was the sort of technical phase when they were like watches that ticked away, but were a bit light on character. Then I went into character and became very broody... I'm sure it's just hang-ups in me, but a lot of freedoms have occurred since writing children's plays. When I came back to writing for adults this summer, I felt liberated from the hold of naturalism. You don't feel such a fool."

Though children's drama has been taken more seriously in recent years, it still tends to be regarded as the poor relation. Ayckbourn was surprised when the premiere of
Invisible Friends in Scarborough attracted only a tiny portion of the critical attention his adult plays invariably receive. There are some fine writers of children's drama, yet Ayckbourn is one of the few major playwrights to bridge the gap.

"It's very interesting, having done both. I think in a way, without false modesty, that writing for children requires truly phenomenal experience. You have to do everything you do for adults, only you have to do it slightly better. Adults will give you about five minutes. They say, 'Well, it's a bit slow, but it'll probably warm up.' Children will give you quarter of a second. Then they say 'Boring!' and turn round to talk to the person behind. It's a very good. refresher course in writing drama. You can get a bit sloppy writing for adults because you can get away with a lot. I think children's drama needs to be respectable-ised a bit, done by a few of our top dramatists."

So, has he any advice for fellow playwrights who might be venturing forth? Ayckbourn's recipe is characteristically witty and self-deprecating:

"I read an interview with John Harvey-Jones the other day in which he said he sometimes felt like a child surrounded by a lot of adults. You've got to have that in you. A lot of adults are very grown-up people. I can't stay around them for too long. They talk about a lot of Very Serious things. Eventually I have to run away."

Website Notes:
[1] Alan Ayckbourn wrote two children’s plays very early in his career,
Dad’s Tale (1960) and Christmas V Mastermind (1962). Both he considered to be disasters and were largely unseen during their original - and only - productions.
[2] The original article incorrectly calls the play
Women In Mind whenever mentioned. This has been corrected.
[3] In
Henceforward…, the protagonist’s long-term companion is a malfunctioning android.
[4] John Harvey-Jones was a renowned British businessman who became famous for his BBC Television series,
The Troubleshooter.

Copyright: The Independent. 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.