Interview: The Press (29 May 2009)

This interview was published in The Press on 29 May 2009.

This Playful Man

by Charles Hutchinson

How easy is it to remember the landmarks of your life?

Whereas TS Eliot's J Alfred Prufrock measured out his life with coffee spoons, 70-year-old Sir Alan Ayckbourn can do so with his plays, all 72 of them.

In his first production since stepping down after 37 years as artistic director of the
Stephen Joseph Theatre, he is directing How The Other Half Loves at the Scarborough theatre for the first time since its premiere 40 years ago. That 1969 premiere at the Library Theatre was of great significance in Ayckbourn's career: it was the first time he had directed his own work in Scarborough, and he wasn't paid for doing so, although he had the use of general manager Ken Boden's flat for the duration of rehearsals.

"It's quite often been the case since then that I haven't been paid: often I would waive the director's fee when I looked at the budget - though now I'm a freelance and I'm coming in as a guest, I'm getting a fee. Very nice it is, too!" says Sir Alan.

Ayckbourn's first hit,
Relatively Speaking, had been directed at The Library Theatre in Scarborough in 1965 by theatre founder Stephen Joseph, who had not only cut the play but changed Ayckbourn's original title to Meet My Father (Relatively Speaking was a second change of title, imposed by producer Peter Bridge and director Nigel Patrick for its London opening at the Duke of York's Theatre in 1967). Ayckbourn's follow-up play, 1967's The Sparrow, "came and went, never to be seen again", as he humbly recalls, but it did have two "most distinguished guys" in the cast, Robert Powell and John Nettles when "Bob was nobbut a lad and it was John's first job out of drama school".

Ayckbourn had been making strides in his directing career at the New Vic in Stoke-on-Trent, and while he may joke that "well, there was no one else to direct"
How The Other Half Loves, he nevertheless felt pressure to have another success after Relatively Speaking. He recalls that expectations were not high for his first play at Scarborough as writer-director -"Alan who?" he says, self mockingly - but he wanted to prove to himself that he could cut the mustard as a playwright.

"It was quite difficult to know if I'd got it right, but once you've written one or two, you know you can finish it," he says. "There's always the angst over the quality and whether it's good and that still goes on today."

Tucked away late on in a summer season,
How The Other Half Loves emerged with its distinctive design: a single set representing two separate but overlapping living rooms, and the play duly gave Ayckbourn his second success, but not before another landmark moment for Alan at the age of 30. Actor Jeremy Franklin, who was playing the lead role of Frank Foster, was injured during the run, and who should step in but one Alan Ayckbourn.

"Jeremy went to Kirkbymoorside for the day and tripped on the pavement. Bob Peck wasn't available to take over as he was on the beach, so I did it, and it was my very last time on the stage," says Alan, who began his theatre career as an actor. "I did it for five nights and Jeremy was quite reluctant to come back as I was quite into it. I had to take the script on stage on the first night and I was so enjoying it and was so confident by the last scene that I found that the last couple of pages had fallen out of the book. There I was, ready for the triumphant finale with my wife... I looked at her, she looked at me, and so I began to ad-lib and she began to try to ad-lib, so it was an actor's nightmare."

The actress in question was Liz Sladen, later to become one of Doctor Who's leading ladies. "She was thinking, 'Not only is he the director and writer, now he's ad-libbing and I have to ad-lib with him'," recalls Alan. "I knew we had to finish it!" Cue blackout, cue a burst of applause.

Neither he nor Liz could immediately remember the lines they came up with. "We then tried to write them down and from that improvised ending came what is now the proper ending... though Robert Morley may have added another."

This last comment is a reference to the larger-than-life Morley's predilection for rewriting his lines for the West End premiere in 1970. "I've left a trail of sadder but richer dramatists behind me," Morley once said. Yet Ayckbourn looks back fondly on Morley's contribution. "The play was not without its improvements both when the Scarborough version went to Leicester, where Robin Midgley directed it, and subsequently when Robert Morley did it and it was adjusted to his whims. He was very loyal to it and stayed with it for 18 months, through two casts, and he kept the Lyric box office going in the days when long runs mattered," says Sir Alan. "It was my consolidatory hit when people said 'Can he do it again?'."

So much so that
How The Other Half Loves became a star vehicle for Phil Silvers, of Sergeant Bilko fame, in Ayckbourn's Broadway debut in 1971. If Morley had a way of coming up with his own words, Silvers initially had difficulty learning Ayckbourn's script, but the show grew into a hit.

Thirty eight years later, Sir Alan is once more the toast of New York, where York director Matthew Warchus's revival of Ayckbourn's
The Norman Conquests has won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Drama Desk Award and Theater World Award. Seven Tony Awards nominations, including Warchus for best director, offer the promise of more gongs.

Ayckbourn, meanwhile, is focusing on his revival of
How The Other Half Loves, re-engaging with the work of his younger self. "It's like looking at an old photo of yourself and thinking, 'Is that me in those swimming trunks?'. I can't recall why I wrote it or why I wrote that line, but I would be loathe to alter great swathes of it because the guy who wrote it knew what he was doing at the time. So it's strange, it's like it's someone else's play but that someone else is me."

Copyright: The Press. 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.