Interview: The Press (16 October 2009)

This interview was published in The Press on 16 October 2009.

Day Of The Child

by Charles Hutchinson

Sir Alan Ayckbourn has returned to his old
Stephen Joseph Theatre stomping ground this autumn to direct the world premiere of his 73rd play, My Wonderful Day, on the 50th anniversary of his first work, The Square Cat.

In his new piece, eight-year-old Winnie lives in a world full of adults and, off school for the day, her task is to write an essay entitled...
My Wonderful Day. What better source of material than the bizarre and increasingly frenetic comings and goings of adults in the weird household in which she finds herself?

"Prepare to be appalled" warns the autumn brochure, as Ayckbourn extends an invitation to the Scarborough audience to see the world through a child's eyes. "It's a first-person narrative," says Sir Alan. "We see it as she sees it. At that age, they draw people aside and ignore others, and then they'll lean back in and say, 'Hello, would you like some soup?', so that's been fun to do."

The show, which opened last week, has thrown up childhood memories for Sir Alan, who was brought up as an only child until he was six or seven when a stepbrother came into his life.

"We got on terribly well because we were kids, but we came from completely different stock, and as we grew older we separated. I was interested in the arts; he was thinking about market gardening. He was thinking, 'Arts, that's for idiots'; I was thinking, 'Market gardening???'."

Looking back on childhood days, Sir Alan says: "I think people forget how quickly children assimilate things around them and take them all in. What Winnie does in
My Wonderful Day is chronicle everything around her, and it's cruelly accurate because children are."

Not for the first time in an Ayckbourn play, men come in for stick. "I got a very jaundiced view of men because my mother's views of men were pretty much unprintable and I've been influenced by that ever since," he says.
"I think female disappointment ran through my blood pretty early in my life and I have to say I prefer women's company en bloc. If I was pushed to say who I wanted to share a desert island with, it would be a woman and not just for the obvious reason."

Ayckbourn has found that women adapt better to playing children in his plays. "I've either written them as female roles or, in the case of
The Boy Who Fell Into A Book, I had a girl playing a boy, but once you ask the audience to make the little jump that's always necessary, they say 'OK, fine'. Ayesha Antoine, who plays Winnie, is 28 but is physically quite tiny and has been playing children regularly, and with her Caribbean background, you can't really tell what age she is. When I met her in the auditions, I didn't give it a second thought, and you find yourself talking to her like a child in rehearsals."

The other element of the play is how parents react to children. "They end up acting worse than the child," Sir Alan says. "By the age of eight or nine, you're beginning to sort your parents out. Winnie's mother is single now and living in cloud-cuckoo land. The daughter is thinking, 'Come on Mum, sort yourself out'. There is affection there, and you just know that the mother will be run by the child by the time she is 13."

Sir Alan also has drawn on his experiences as a grandfather, observing his grandchildren's behaviour. "My son and daughter-in-law call their son 'Little Alan' as he was very similar to the way I was as a young child. That watchfulness and that slightly introverted child, whose behaviour was brought about by not interacting with robust brothers and sisters when you had to fight for your supper. Instead I went off into an invented world where my toy soldiers had long conversations and stories with complex plots," he says. "It was the only way you could get a decent answer."

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.