Interview: The Press (9 September 2011)

This interview was published in The Press on 9 September 2011.

Alan Ayckbourn's Neighbourhood Watch
by Charles Hutchinson

He began by
writing under the name Roland Allen, [1] providing a vehicle for Alan Ayckbourn, the already frustrated actor after only two years in the profession. The year was 1959, the play, The Square Cat, and a 21-year-old Alan played a pop star of his own age and “of rampant sexuality”, as his biographer, Paul Allen, recalls in A Pocket Guide To Alan Ayckbourn’s Plays.

Those plays now number 75, a landmark notched by Alan, or rather, Sir Alan, with this week’s opening of
Neighbourhood Watch at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. Charles Hutchinson keeps a watching and listening brief as the knighted playwright and director discusses the play and a life in theatre.

What is the subject matter of Neighbourhood Watch, Sir Alan?
I think it’s all in the title. It’s a cautionary play. It addresses modern hang-ups such as law and order, health and safety. Are we safe in our beds when there are lawless youths roaming the streets while the police seem powerless? It’s tapping into that sort of fear.

Is it as dark as it sounds?
It’s in my dark farce mode. I’ve always been interested in how, out of tiny things, wars are often fought. Whenever history is examined, you always say: is that really what started it? Helen of Troy was responsible for an awful lot! Neighbourhood Watch begins with a genuine misunderstanding where no one is prepared to stand down and the reason becomes all but forgotten, but nonetheless causes a war.

How come you tackle this from the perspective of something as apparently innocuous as a neighbourhood watch scheme?
It’s about committees which have a way of being taken over by lunatics and extremists. Sane people often haven’t the patience or staying power to serve on committees. So the people in charge of them are often those with nothing better to do but manipulate other people’s lives. Then there are sub-committees, which are answerable to nobody and do all the work from finance to, in this case, retribution! Very few normal people volunteer for those, as that’s another evening out of their lives, so you find people volunteering for sub-committees who shouldn’t be in charge of a box of matches, let alone the future of an estate. (For more information, please see my earlier play Ten Times Table!)

What quickly emerges from this scheme is a particularly extreme British version of a gated community. Do you foresee that as a real possibility?
There is a sense of impotence these days, an instinct to build little fences around ourselves. Because my English people are inherently polite people, they very rarely contradict each other and are happy to go along with things until, usually, it’s far too late. I don’t think we’ll ever become an extreme fascist state in this country overnight, but we might over the years just drift into it and people will then ask how on earth did we get here? The English are not for turning. But gently nudging? The English are for nudging.

One of the principal ideas of the play is our perception of real versus imagined threats. Is this particularly pertinent to society today?
I think so, because we are increasingly distancing ourselves from reality. We get our information from newspapers or TV or the internet; we are aware of things that are happening but since we don’t witness them first hand, relying instead on news media, often amplified, this compounds the sense that society is breaking down. I think there’s too much information which we can’t process fast enough – no wonder we’re in danger of getting badly confused. I’ve been aware that once I’m out of the stream – and when one is a writer, you do tend to keep dipping out and in – the world seems completely demented. Then when you get back to reality, you realise most of your fears were ludicrously exaggerated. Yes, it is risky to walk down certain streets, even in Scarborough, alone at night but society is not breaking down.”

How would you compare Neighbourhood Watch to your 2010 play, Life Of Riley?
I describe some of my plays as watercolours and some as oils. I think Life Of Riley was probably more a watercolour and this is more towards oil - maybe a pastel! It’s slightly bolder and has some extremely dark shadows in it, but also some light moments. Life Of Riley was rather oblique. A lot of people who saw it didn’t quite perceive what was happening and were looking for twists which weren’t there. This one is much more in your face.

Neighbourhood Watch will go on tour to New York after Scarborough. What do you gain from these tours?
I’ve always believed that when we’re touring, we benefit enormously because although this is just another show in Scarborough terms, by the time you get to New York, it’s the first time anyone has seen the play or seen the company. We’ve often been incredibly well praised and certainly incredibly well received and that makes you realise the quality of the work. The last three visits we’ve had to the 59E59 Theatres, we’ve had a lot of accolades and a lot of positive press because New Yorkers are never backward in coming forward. They have really enthused. It gives the company, not to say me, a little shot in the arm.”

Neighbourhood Watch is not only your 75th play but also the 300th new work to be commissioned by the Stephen Joseph Theatre. That must rank as a significant achievement?
It’s a fantastic record - such a high percentage of new work. I do think that proud tradition has become more difficult over the years. My regret is that due to entirely financial considerations - which are more acute now than ever before - there is less and less opportunity for new writing because a new play by an unknown is a huge risk. I’m a profound believer that new writing is the lifeblood of the theatre, but increasingly there are more revivals and new writers are driven into fringe venues or the last two subsidised bastions, the Royal Court and the National Theatre, where they can still afford to stage new writing. I can well see the frustration of [Stephen Joseph Theatre] artistic director Chris Monks because there is so little space to manoeuvre.”

Looking back over 52 years, what has been the biggest change in the world of British theatre between your first play and your 75th?
I think the biggest change to the theatre in my lifetime as a dramatist is that it has gradually ‘opened out’. Boundaries have broken down so that specific categories of tragedy and comedy, farce and melodrama rarely apply any more. A play is a play is a play. It can be devised by performers; actors who can often double as musicians; musicians who equally may be dancers or singers. Multi-media abounds, where live performance can comfortably exist alongside video or film. Technology, too, has leapt ahead. We are able achieve near miracles scenically thanks to lighting and sound. For some of us though the most significant rediscovery has been the enduring effect of simple silence. The gap where words stop and thoughts start. But maybe that has always been there. All we need to do occasionally, as in life so with art, is simply to pause occasionally and think.”

Website Notes:
[1] Alan Ayckbourn's first four plays were written under the pseudonym Roland Allen,m a combination of his Christian name and the surname of his first wife, Christine Roland.

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