Interview: The Press (31 May 2002)

This interview was published in the Yorkshire Evening Press on 31 May 2002.

Life On The Outside
by Charles Hutchinson

In his 62nd year and his 40th anniversary in Scarborough, Alan Ayckbourn is premiering his 62nd play, his first thriller since
Haunting Julia in 1994, at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Like that claustrophobic chamber piece, the newly opened Snake In The Grass is a creepy, dark three-hander.

"It's been seen as a companion piece, as it has only the three women," says the theatre knight with something of the night about his latest Scarborough premiere. “After doing a thriller for three men, people said, `Oh, you owe women one now', so being a fair man with my company of actors, I've written this one for three women."

Two of those women are sisters Annabel and Miriam, who tend to a sunlit garden filled with deeply buried, childhood memories. When night begins to fall, is it only the past that comes back to haunt them, or could there be something infinitely more terrifying, and where does the third woman fit into a play already billed by The Times as "B-movie-lesbo-horror-schlock"?

"I've always wanted to do a thriller that starts in sunlight in a garden, and slowly the darkness comes in as the sun sets," says Alan. "But there's not a clap of thunder or any lighting in this play as it's more a study of women, and essentially the sisters."

That said, this prolific writer of dark social comedies enjoys the potential for even darker thrillers to have the audience leaping from chairs.

"The idea is to lead them in gently and then gradually terrify them," he says. "Like a farce, it requires a certain collaboration with the audience: just as you have to believe a man in a cupboard with his trousers down is desperate, so you have to believe there's a reason fox' the sisters to be frightened - and I think the theatre-in-the-round setting is very good for those prickles on the neck! Like comedy, it's about timing. I always use the analogy, when talking to the actors, that they should remember the scary movie they saw twice. You know when you see it for the second time that nothing happens at a certain point but when you first see it, you wonder what might happen next. It's that combination of what might happen and what does happen, and then you have to have a leavening humour on top of that."

There is a relish in Ayckbourn's voice as he prepares to watch the audience being scared by
Snake In The Grass, and an enthusiasm for the thriller and horror possibilities afforded by a garden setting. Just as no one can hear you scream in space in the Alien movies, so gardens can threaten as well as enchant, as seen earlier in Woman In Mind, House & Garden, Dreams From A Summer House and more Ayckbourn plays besides.

"The thing about open-air sets is that they're infinite rather than finite; and in the garden you behave differently, you sit on the ground, you are more informal," Alan says. "In a sitting room, you don't normally wander to the other side, unless a play has been badly directed, so I love the outdoors and the freer structure it allows for writing. Inside, there has to be a reason for someone to come into a room or leave it; in a garden they can just wander off by saying `Oh there's a rhododendron'."

Like space, a garden can go on for ever in a theatre-in-the-round.

"In this play, we 'extend' the garden beyond the audience, so that whatever is out there could be behind them or beyond them, and there's no limit to the set," says Alan, who will be employing the same set, with a tennis court and summer house, for both
Snake In The Grass and his summer rep revival of Joking Apart.

"The audience will be peering through the gardens, so it'll be like a peep show, with the actors coming from behind them and being in the midst of them, so the audience will feel part of what's going on."

Ayckbourn has always enjoyed thrillers and horror movies, be it Robert Wise's 1963 classic
The Haunting, Alien or the B-movie schlock of Roger Corman. "I've always thought I'd like to do something like that. I remember that in The Haunting, as with all the best horror movies, you never see the ghost but it's always on your mind. That's the effect I want."

Will the master of comedy be the master of suspense? What a thrilling prospect.

Copyright: Charles Hutchinson. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.