Interview: The Press (14 September 2015)

This interview was published in The Press on 14 September 2015.

Alan Ayckbourn's 79th play opens at Stephen Joseph Theatre with a story of a hero's return, murder, council corruption and marital misery
by Charles Hutchinson

Seventeen years ago, Murray fled the neighbourhood under somewhat of a cloud and certain local folk have long memories, not least Alice, the mayor, whom he left standing at the altar. Once the welcome flags have stopped waving and the town band has ceased playing, few of his friends seem particularly happy to see him back.

Murray’s declared intention of staying put and settling down with his new bride, Baba, threatens to stir up all manner of old rivalries and resentments. The couple may be in search of peace but suddenly they find themselves in the firing line.

Hero’s Welcome is about the prodigal son, Murray, coming back to his home town," says Ayckbourn. "He’s one of my anti-heroes really, a squaddie who has got all the good qualities that I like although he got trapped in his early days by the machinations of sexual politics and ran away at the altar. It explores the male rivalry between Murray and an old friend, Brad, who is fiercely competitive and will go to any lengths to win.”

Hero's Welcome has "a few of my themes in it", says Ayckbourn, highlighting one in particular. "I love characters that surprise you," he reveals. "I tell the actors they should go on a journey but don't tell us that journey; don't anticipate your own development as a character."

He describes his 79th play as having a "character narrative, rather than the event narratives of
Relatively Speaking and How The Other Half Loves. Though in the best plays you do have both, and I hope Hero's Welcome does have both," says Ayckbourn. "In this story, Murray is too good to be true, and his bride is not absolutely taken in, so my characters undergo quite a sea change. What lay behind Murray running away, leaving Alice at the altar? Were there two sides to it, and if so, who's lying? Hopefully we get the full version of the truth at the end".

Another of Ayckbourn's favourite "old themes" in his plays is male rivalry. "Alpha men like to challenge each other; there's that desperation to top each other's funny stories, for example, where no-one laughs at the end because they're primed for their own," he says. "I don't want to generalise about male rivalry, but the men don't come out of it well in this play, though the women at least show some strength and determination, but on the way you think, 'good god, I fear for her'."

Ayckbourn still finds endless fascination in human behaviour. "I don't think I've worked us out, because people are inconsistent, so they constantly surprise," he says. "I never tire of examining the human psyche; I'm an instinctive psychologist. I don't want to know about people in advance; I first want to see them and observe them, and hopefully audiences will recognise someone in my plays, though they won't recognise themselves. As Jonathan Swift says, satire is a mirror in which you can see everyone's face but your own."

One constant in his playwriting is that "bad people are inevitably easier to write". "You allow your misogynistic self to emerge, snarling into the limelight, then put it away shamefacedly," says Ayckbourn. "The good guys can come across as smug or self- satisfied and you can feel audiences thinking, 'oh no, I don't like this guy, he's just nice'. So rather than nice, you have to find the good in someone, the honesty in them, and at heart, Murray in Hero's Welcome is a god man. He's silly, but a good man."

Murray's new bride, Baba, is played by Terenia Edwards, who joins the
Stephen Joseph Theatre company from Confusions in her first professional stage role since graduating from the Central School of Speech and Drama in June. Richard Stacey takes on the central role of returning war hero Murray; Stephen Billington is his best friend, Brad; Emma Manton plays Brad's wife, Kara, and daughter, Simone. Elizabeth Boag will be the mayor, Alice, while Russell Dixon is Derek, her model-train-obsessed husband.

"It's another element of theatre that audiences enjoy, seeing actors in different roles," says Ayckbourn. "But if you do surprise them in a play, you have to surprise them gently or they'll think, 'it's not for me', but the audiences here have been so loyal, as I've thrown so much at them: murder, bad language, quite a lot of sex, a bit of nudity..."
[1]

Website Notes:
[1] 'A bit of nudity' refers to the climatic scene of
Way Upstream where the two protagonists briefly disrobe before jumping into the 'river'.

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