Interview: The Press (18 July 2008)

This interview was published in The Press on 18 July 2008.

Only The Lonely
by Charles Hutchinson

A tidy mind has led to Alan Ayckbourn's 71st play.

He had already settled on reviving the ghostly
Haunting Julia, an all-male three-hander and shadowy Snake In The Grass, an all-female three-hander, when the Stephen Joseph Theatre artistic director turned his thoughts to his new play for Summer 2008, his last year in charge at the Scarborough theatre.

"So we had three men, three women, and with my tidy mind I thought, 'let's have something that combines the theme and the cast', and I wanted to write something that would complement the other two, but was lighter too," he says.

The result is a comedy of the supernatural,
Life & Beth., which unites the summer repertory company of Ian Hogg, Adrian McLoughlin and Richard Stacey, Susie Blake, Lisa Goddard and Ruth Gibson.

Life & Beth may be lighter, but Alan qualifies that initial statement. "It's still wistful," he says. "If you write about death and loneliness and widowhood, you do get a sad strain."

The play wonders whether the recently widowed Beth (played by Goddard) will make it through her first Christmas alone, when even the cat has walked out. The family rallies round, but her alcoholic sister-in-law, accident-prone son and his truculent girlfriend make it hard for her to maintain a welcoming smile. Add the local lovesick vicar and a further unexpected and uninvited guest, and Beth's Christmas will be anything but merry.

"Like the other two plays, this one is again about closure and about parents and their children. In
Snake In The Grass, it's about how two daughters are affected by their off-stage father; in Haunting Julia, it's about the off-stage daughter being screwed up by her parents, and in turn she screws up her father."

Tidiness of thought was not the only springboard for
Life & Beth. "Going to funerals, as I do at my age [Alan is 69], you have to find ways of expressing your sorrow, when the widow tends to look at you sideways if you praise him to the hilt, so you try not to go over the top," says Alan.

"In
Life & Beth, Beth and Gordon seemed to have had the perfect marriage, and for Beth, her husband's death was a natural closure, but where everyone else thinks there should be more grief from her, she sees it as an end of a chapter. She wants closure."

Her late husband, however, has other ideas: he comes back to haunt her, "or he seems to".

"She thinks, 'Oh no, I want to move on', and what looked to be a perfect marriage was in fact far from perfect," says'Alan. "When someone dies, they've gone on to something better or worse, and you think, 'for goodness sake, get on with your own life'. Women often outlive their husbands and go on to have a second life, where they go round the world or go berserk and marry again. It's the ones who fade away that you feel sorry for, the ones you wish could close the book and carry on like Beth does."

The ghost is probably only in her imagination, suggests Alan, but the ghostly Gordon turns out to be just as irritating as he was when he was the dominant partner in the marriage. Now he has gone, however, Beth has swapped playing second fiddle to virtuoso violin soloist.

Even in death, it would appear that a man is a disappointment to a woman, as so many feckless, useless, frustrating men are in Ayckbourn's plays, or is that too much of a generalisation? "I think it might be a theme in my work, though I would hate to feel all my men are dreadful. There's a fair number of male monsters in these plays, but I've written female monsters in my plays too - and what's the point of writing about thoroughly nice people? We all just feel jealous. As someone said to me, when they come to my plays, 'we always come out thinking at least our marriage isn't that bad'!"

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