Interview: The Press (17 September 2010)

This interview was published in The Press on 17 September 2010.

Life Of Riley
by Charles Hutchinson

Alan Ayckbourn’s revival of his 1994 thriller
Communicating Doors and world premiere of his 74th play, Life Of Riley, share more than the same company of actors.

“I linked them first because the cast chimed together well, and I guess one led into the other, though it was completely unintended, though there were one or two linear connections, so perhaps there was a link there, but there’s no connecting theme” says Alan, whose premiere opened last night at the
Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough.

Communicating Doors plays with time, travelling between past, present and future, while Life Of Riley looks backwards, forwards and, now and then, sideways, with wry comic affection for the lives we lived or might have lived.

“A lot of my plays look wistfully at what we might have been doing rather than what we are doing,” says Alan. On this occasion, the life of George Riley has only a few months remaining, but while his closest friends remember with love, nostalgia, or occasional bursts of fury, how deeply he has affected their past lives, maverick George is plotting a last final farewell that threatens to upset all their lives.

Without giving too much away, as with near-professional party-goers Dick and Lottie Potter in his 1972 play
Absurd Person Singular, George Riley is never seen. “As I write in the programme, I’m fairly well known for my off-stage characters, and here, Riley is in the title but he never appears.

“I wanted to put him at a distance and see what other people were doing in his absence. When people are in a group and you split up, it can have terrible consequences, not only for the couple but also for those around them, who look at their own marriage and think, ‘My god, I thought they were happy; what does that say about our marriage?’.

“In this play, it does cause everyone to look at their own relationships, which is a nice way for George to depart, having sorted out his friends’ lives.”

Alan was asked to write a description of George Riley but for once words failed, for the best of reasons. “I said I couldn’t because he’s a cipher,” he explains. The rest is left to the imagination, refracted through his friends.
Not for the first time, an Ayckbourn play is peopled with unhappy couples. “I was once asked by an angry woman in the bar why I never wrote about happy couples, and I said, ‘because they’re rather dull,” says Alan, who promptly wrote
Joking Apart in response to her protestation.

That is all Ayckbourn history now (
Joking Apart dates from 1978). Returning to the present, Alan has set Life Of Riley outdoors: a conduit for tongues to loosen.

“I thought it was time to have another outdoor play, as you can tell time passing much better there than anywhere else, and in the outdoors my characters seem to talk about themselves much more openly because they don’t feel they’re in a confined space. They’ll talk about themselves in a confessional way, with a couple of cows wandering in the field, which gives the play a more pastoral feel. It has its quiet moments, so it’s more of a pastoral symphony.

“We just seem to need to double the space between us metaphorically when we’re outdoors. It’s a complete contrast to the tiny table for two with the man stuck to the table, about to be asked the big question. Outside, it becomes freer; blokes feel happier.”

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