With Alan Ayckbourn currently celebrating his 80th year (and his 60th as a playwright) I’m mindful just how much of my leisure time has been bound up with the works of this dramatic Titan. So, I thought it was about time I tried to explain quite why I’m such a devotee. But it was clearly going to be too large a subject to cram into a single blog post and so I hit on the notion of a trilogy. After all it is something that Ayckbourn himself has tried on – pleasingly neatly – three occasions (The Norman Conquests, Damsels In Distress and Things That Go Bump…) And just like those dramatic pieces these blog posts can be tackled in any order….and that’s the only claim of similarity I’m going to make. So, now here we go with….
“Hello, hello. What are we up to out here then?” Those seemingly innocuous words were ones that were to lead me into a brave new world. They were spoken by the late great Richard Briers, as the increasingly obnoxious Sydney Hopcroft, in the play Absurd Person Singular. The year was 1973 and I was at The Criterion Theatre in London’s West End for my first taste of what was to become a lifelong passion. I can’t recall why I’d taken a punt on this piece as I knew nothing about the playwright or the play. And the title wasn’t giving much away (turns out Ayckbourn just liked it as a title and it has nothing to do with the content); but it was an absolute revelation. Here was a play set in three different kitchens on three successive Christmas Eves. Although it had star names (the aforementioned Briers and Sheila Hancock) it was an ensemble piece which gave equal credence to all six characters. The play contained scenes of marital disharmony, bullying, loneliness, obsession, alcoholism and financial chicanery and yet there we were all killing ourselves laughing. Act 2 alone was staggering with a woman onstage, silent but repeatedly trying to commit suicide; I’d literally never seen anything like it. Despite student poverty, I actually saw the production twice – I was that impressed.
Thinking this might have been a one-off fluke, I thought I’d better thoroughly test the waters by seeing the author’s next work and this, if possible, was even more mind blowing. For this was Ayckbourn’s acknowledged masterpiece The Norman Conquests, a trilogy of plays which set out events across a weekend in different parts of the same house. And looking back on it, what a cast: Tom Courtenay, Felicity Kendall, Penelope Keith, Michael Gambon. OK, they weren’t all household names at the time, but quality attracts quality. The whole enterprise was glorious and I was hooked (NB – While doing my research I found a ticket stub for one of the plays – apparently I paid the princely sum of 80 pence!)
Now, in case you’re concerned that I’m going to laboriously work my way through all the productions of Ayckbourn that I’ve see over the subsequent 45 years, fear not. Indulge me while I pick a few highlights and try and boil things down to some stats.
Let’s start with how many I’ve seen. It’s actually quite difficult to put a specific figure on it as some of Ayckbourn’s plays have multiple parts or even versions/revisions, so it depends on how one counts. The canon of work shown on the Ayckbourn website (and who am I are to argue?) lists 83 full length plays produced as of current date. Of these, I have seen at least one production of 60 of the plays and I have seen 22 of them more than once. Topping the leader board are Season’s Greetings, Communicating Doors and the three plays of The Norman Conquests. In addition, I have seen four of the five listed one act plays, three Ayckbourn adaptations and five of his revues. So, the actual total is anybody’s guess.
I admit that looking at such figures makes it all seem like a bit of an addiction. And it probably is. There are certainly worse things to become addicted to, although sometimes you wouldn’t know it. Even now I still regularly encounter the notion that Ayckbourn is a lightweight farceur who should not be mentioned in the same breath as Pinter, Stoppard or Beckett. Sorry, but that’s rubbish and, I’ve found that it’s a view usually spouted by someone who really knows nothing about how diverse a body of work has been produced nor how, mostly, consistent it has been. My advice is to go and see a few quality productions (at Scarborough if you can) and then, and only then, judge.
As to what does it for me, I think what really presses the right buttons is the sheer risk taking and the multiple attempts to do something on stage which on paper sound impossible. Ayckbourn has set plays on a cabin cruiser on a river (Way Upstream), at a Spanish villa with a swimming pool (Man Of The Moment), in a cross section of a house (A Small Family Business and Things We Do For Love). He has tinkered around with time scales so that plays develop in real time (Absent Friends), in reverse time (Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present) and in time going every which way (Time Of My Life). He has introduced random chance events into proceedings (Sisterly Feelings, Roundelay, It Could Be Any One Of Us) which if nothing else keeps stage management on its toes. The plays are not written as star vehicles but do examine really big themes which resonate with audiences. Beyond everything it is the restless invention and the celebration of theatre as a live art form that really puts him at the top of the league.
So, what titles have made the biggest impression? Well, going up to Scarborough for the first time was rather special. This was in 1991 for a lesser known play called Wildest Dreams which tapped into the, then, current interest in role playing games. What was really special, looking back, was that it was also my first experience of in the round theatre. It’s a format I have always enjoyed ever since – though I know it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. The acting seemed so naturalistic and unforced and I didn’t find being able to see the audience at all distracting – in fact it seemed to add to the
communal experience. A similar visit to Scarborough in 1996 was another highlight – when the new Stephen Joseph Theatre was opened in the town’s art deco Odeon. This time the production was By Jeeves the delightful homage to Wodehouse which Ayckbourn and his musical partner Andrew Lloyd Webber, no less, rescued from the ashes of an original huge flop back in 1975. In all I’ve been up to Scarborough over 20 times and seen 25 or so different productions there; it’s always a bit special seeing a new Ayckbourn creation on home territory.
Other highlights have been (in no particular order):
The various ingenious permutations of Intimate Exchanges (1984) at Greenwich and then the West End. What absolute theatrical chutzpah – 31 scenes, 8 major variations with 16 different endings. And if that wasn’t enough, just one actor and one actress playing ten different roles. Sheer madness but oh so rewarding.
The original London production of Woman In Mind (1986) with Julia McKenzie – an absolutely devastating piece about a woman’s descent into madness. I can remember not being able to move from my seat for a good ten minutes after the curtain fell as I tried to take in what I had seen. Janie Dee was almost as good in the lead when I saw a revival but nothing could ever quite equal that first encounter.
The National Theatre production of Bedroom Farce (1975). So very well cast and brilliantly constructed … and it was at the National – proper recognition.
House and Garden (Scarborough in 1999 and the National Theatre in 2000) Two plays taking place simultaneously in different auditoria utilising the same cast. More theatrical innovation/madness but an absolute triumph and a total celebration of live theatre.
Then, of course, there’s 2005’s Improbable Fiction when I found myself… but actually, you’ll have to read another part of the trilogy for that story…
For the other two parts of the trilogy please click Acting Ayckbourn or Directing Ayckbourn
For more about the life/works of Alan Ayckbourn please visit http://www.alanayckbourn.net/