Interview: The Press (8 September 2017)

This interview was published in The Press on 8 September 2017.

Ayckbourn marks 60th anniversary at Stephen Joseph Theatre with premiere of 81st play
by Charles Hutchinson

Written last year, such is his prolific rate of writing in his seventies that sees him have another play completed already, it is a comedy in four parts about "an unremarkable man and the remarkable women who loved him, left him, or lost him over 60 years, and of the equally remarkable old manor house that saw and heard it all happen".

From his first unsettling encounter as a very young man in 1925 to an unexpected reunion late in life, Anthony Spates’ romantic progress is charted in a gently touching comedy set in "a house full of ghosts".

Unremarkable man, remarkable women, are men in the Ayckbourn doghouse once more?! "He's a reactive part," says Ayckbourn. "The women are quite dominant in the play, which is travelling such a long way. So I've put a very long lens on it, shooting it at quite a distance, as opposed to being an extreme close-up like in
Absent Friends.

"It's quite a 'long shot', but it's not a long play, it's about two hours, but you get the feeling of a long play, because it proceeds from the 1920s to the 1980s, and there's an enormous difference between the two.
[1]

"We're exploring the huge difference between men and women's positions in the 1920s and 1980s, beginning when some men were appalled by the Suffragette movement; then moving on to the 1940s, when we'd just had the Second World War and the country was still recovering; we were a country devoid of young men and full of damaged women. I was seven in 1946 and that was the first year I have a conscious memory of."

The play progresses to the 1960s and onwards to the 1980s, but the 60-year time span matching Ayckbourn's own 60th anniversary of first joining the Stephen Joseph Theatre repertory company as an actor is a mere coincidence, he says.

Instead, he is utilising one of the abiding guiding forces of his plays over the years: the passage of time. "There are 21 characters in the play, and a lot of the time the actors will be having great fun changing costumes, roles and accents and becoming different people, and I hope the audiences will love that as they loved it in the old days of repertory theatre and that's one of my great theatrical joys."

As important as the human characters is the house, which undergoes changes of character too through its change of use down the years. "I've become interested in the bricks and mortar of what we surround ourselves with, and what we do with them," he says, recalling how the
Stephen Joseph Theatre had transformed existing buildings into theatres, most recently the Odeon cinema into the present SJT.

"For the play, I thought, what's going to happen to the house? It starts as a country house in the Twenties, becomes a public school in the Forties, an arts centre in the Sixties and an hotel in the Eighties, and in Kevin Jenkins' design, the house stays essentially the same but he does do some clever things with the scenery, with bits being added and subtracted, but mainly it's the people who change, of course. I won't give too much away, but there's fun to be had moving from room to room.

"The nice thing about The Round stage is that it asks questions you of as a writer and director, but if you present the story coherently, it provides the answers for you."

At 78, Ayckbourn is enjoying playing with time and physicality as much as ever, relishing the adrenaline rush of setting himself new challenges. "I'm a great believer in the power of adrenaline," he says. "When I was acting, the reason I gave up was no longer scared by what I was doing. My over-riding ambition was always to do something different, which was such a pain to the other actors, so going on stage slightly bored was not a good idea, and going on stage without an edge to it didn't feel right. It's the same with writing plays, to have that adrenaline of doing something new. I'm always suspicious of anything becoming routine."

So, how has Alan Ayckbourn "scared" himself this time? "I think it's the time span and the time line, and the number of characters, which is huge: even more than in
Confusions," he says.

Website Notes:
[1] At the time of writing,
A Brief History Of Women covered the longest span of time - 60 years - within an Ayckbourn play.

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