Interview: The Times (1 April 2014)

This interview was published in The Times on 1 April 2014.

Alan Ayckbourn: 'Britain Now Has An Atmosphere Of Cynicism'
by Benedict Nightingale

Who originally inspired A Small Family Business, Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s serious comedy about the virtuous CEO and paterfamilias who affably evolves into a moral monster? That’s to say, who is ultimately responsible for the revival about to open in the National’s Olivier theatre? Well, the claimants include Sir Peter Hall, the National’s artistic director in 1987, when the play had its West End premiere, some argumentative thespians at the theatre Ayckbourn created in Scarborough and his mother, who had light fingers and ethics to match.
“She went to work in offices and would come home with fistfuls of pencils and paper clips and then a ream of paper, saying no one would miss them,” Ayckbourn tells me when we meet in his Scarborough house. “I worried that she’d come up the drive with a desk under her arm. And when we left hotels our luggage brimmed with towels and ashtrays. I’d feel terrible but she’d say, ‘Oh, they charge automatically for these things,’ and I’d say, ‘No they don’t.’ ”
These memories resurfaced when, in discussions about the play, one actor said it was fine to pinch food if you were hungry, another that it was OK to steal books since knowledge was public property and Ayckbourn delivered much the same homily about moral slippage his protagonist gives at the start of
A Small Family Business. And when Hall lured him from Scarborough with the promise of creating his own company, provided its output included something new by him, the play was born.
Clearly, the plot suited the large stage and cast, 17 in all, that the
National Theatre provided and which Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, with seven or eight in the company, just couldn’t. As a result the play acquired a scope way beyond the merely domestic, hence the tough-minded comedy that was seen in 1987 not just as public and political but as an attack on Thatcherism. [1] As one critic said, Ayckbourn was writing with “a deep venom” about “a world grown sick with greed”.
“I never intended that,” says Ayckbourn now. “I didn’t want to make it an out-and-out attack on the Tory Government. I’m not David Hare - I’m always looking out from the sofa, not the platform - but I was reflecting the climate at the time.” Indeed, he feels that his portrayal of avarice and moral compromise is almost more pertinent now than it was in the Big Bang era, given what he sees as “an awful atmosphere of despair and cynicism” in a Britain where people no longer trust politicians, policemen, bankers, or anyone much. Ayckbourn’s work does sometimes have political ramifications - remember
Way Upstream in which a dictatorial stranger hijacks a cabin cruiser? - but financial constraints and those shrunken Scarborough casts have often dictated its content: “Dramatists are practical people and write what they need to write in order to survive. So if you’ve got five men and women sitting round a table, you write Absent Friends. Then you get the cups of tea and disintegrating marriages that are my stock in trade.”
Mark you,
Absent Friends, Just Between Ourselves and many others have a bite that comedies usually lack. That derives from Ayckbourn’s experience as a young actor in weekly rep: “There used to be different categories - comedies, farces, thrillers and, if you were lucky, a serious play, when the lighting went dark, everyone performed very slowly and the audience sat there solemnly and quietly. I was traipsing around at the back doing the props and thinking I’d like to write a comedy that’s very quiet and dark. I got interested in confusing the genres. One day long afterwards a man said to me: ‘I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.’ And I thought: ‘I’ve got there.’ ”
Not everyone was glad he’d got there. Ayckbourn remembers a woman asking him why he couldn’t write more plays about happy people like her and her husband. The response was quintessential Ayckbourn. Far from returning to the lightish comedy of
Relatively Speaking, the early play he’d come to think too thinly characterised, he wrote Joking Apart, which involved a golden couple whose effortless happiness destroyed others by exposing their miseries.
Casual callousness, unthinking cruelty and sheer insensitivity remain key subjects. As he’s said, “My work is about men’s inhumanity to women, women’s inhumanity to men and the physical world’s inhumanity to us all.” Altogether, he’s a very moral writer, though never in a prim, proper or pretentious way. He sees the funny side of just about everything, which is why we spend our interview laughing and laughing as he recalls past oddities. The time he went to see Andrew Lloyd Webber in his new New York apartment, a place so grand Lloyd Webber couldn’t find Ayckbourn’s coat when he left and had to ring his wife in Britain for directions to what was, Ayckbourn recalls, a cupboard that could have housed a family of four. The time a famous producer started snoring while Ayckbourn was describing a prospective comedy over a post-prandial brandy: “I had an audience of one and it fell asleep, which is why I never, never tell anyone my new ideas.”
Right now his head is clearly teeming with new ideas, which is good news for anyone who feared that the stroke he suffered in 2006 would stem his creativity. For three or four weeks in hospital that head was empty of ideas for the first time since he was a boy whose toy soldiers, instead of fighting, would discuss their relationships with each other. “I thought I’ve got a good back catalogue, I can spend my time reviving plays, but it wasn’t the same. And suddenly a tiny idea appeared and I thought, ‘Thank God, I’ll massage that.’ ”
True, he’ll be 75 on April 12, his hip is creaky and he calls himself “not terribly mobile”. But he swims, attends his grandson’s school plays, works and travels. When we meet he’s about to go to New York to see productions of his 1992
Time of My Life and his 2013 Arrivals and Departures, both darkish plays told in the unconventional ways he’s made his speciality. And soon he’ll be doing “the juicy bit”, meaning directing, which he says justifies the loneliness of writing. He’ll be staging both a musical adaptation of his The Boy Who Fell Into a Book, in which a child gets lost in a shelf of children’s literature, and his new Roundelay, five playlets that will be performed in whatever order is decided by the coloured ping-pong balls audience members have plucked, one by one, from a bag in the foyer. That means, he thinks, 120 possible permutations, with the same characters sometimes seen in different ways and an ending that could be funny, could be sad.
It’s Ayckbourn’s 78th work for the theatre and, as often, is experimental in form and content, but ever since he realised he was boringly coasting as an unremarkable actor, he’s been determined to make his
playwriting more stimulating. He wants to keep moving, keep surprising himself, keep his nerves jangling, “Otherwise I’m treading water. I can’t just think: ‘This worked before, it will work again.’ And I’m, yeah, terrified when the actors first meet an audience.”
However, that’s good, that’s necessary, even for this hugely successful yet always modest dramatist. His one creative aim, he told me, was “to get better”. He also has an unassuming answer to those who claim that posterity will appreciate his work. Yes, it seems to appeal to different cultures. The late director Alain Resnais, for instance, became such a fan that he made films of several of Ayckbourn’s plays, came regularly to Scarborough and even got married there, with Ayckbourn and his wife, Heather Stoney, as witnesses as a cheerful registrar mispronounced the French couple’s names.
“But I listen to Radio 3,” he said, “and they say, ‘Here’s music by a contemporary of Mozart called Bogliatore whose Second Symphony was the most popular at the time. He eclipsed Mozart and is now completely forgotten.’ And I think, ‘Here’s an object lesson for us all.’"

Website Notes:
[1] Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990.

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