Acting Ayckbourn

Acting Ayckbourn

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. Reinforced by a recent visit to his stamping ground of Scarborough, Yorkshire, 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 these 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….

Acting Ayckbourn

There is something quite joyous in acting in an Ayckbourn play. When taking on a role, you know you are going to be presented with a wealth of indicators as to how to play the part, you will get to deliver some gloriously worded dialogue and you can be assured that the audience will, by and large, respond to characters they feel they have met and engaged with or that are, even, facets of their own personalities.

I have played twelve roles in eleven plays and found significant interest and challenge with each of them. The principle, as Ayckbourn himself has declared, lies in playing the truth! Yes, many of the roles are comic but it is not the business of the actor to play the comedy itself. Rather it is to find the beating heart of the character and play that. I’ve invariably found that the plays are so well structured and the characterisation/dialogue so naturally precise that the comedy will take care of itself.

Now, I don’t intend to go through every instance of the roles I’ve played; rather what follows are some of the most memorable instances. That said, though, and for the benefit of the curious, here’s the list in chronological order:

Absent Friends Paul 1979
Table Manners Norman 1981
Joking Apart Sven 1983
Season’s Greetings Neville 1985
How The Other Half Loves William 1987
Henceforward… Lupus 1991
Family Circles Edward 1997
Table Manners Norman 2002
Ten Times Table Ray 2004
Taking Steps Roland 2006
Improbable Fiction Brevis 2007
It Could Be Any One Of Us Mortimer 2010
Season’s Greetings Harvey 2014

(Actually I’ve also played Gordon in Gosforth’s Fete – from Confusions – but as a one-off performance in a one act play I don’t tend to count it)

Paul (1979)

I first found myself taking steps (see what I did there?) as an Ayckbourn character in 1979 when I played self-made businessman Paul in Absent Friends. The play revolves around a basically simple idea of a tea party for the bereaved Colin and is unusual in that the playing time exactly mirrors the time which expires on stage. Colin’s friends are supposed to be cheering him up but they all have issues of their own, including Paul whose marriage is falling apart. I principally remember it for the large jug of cream which was poured over my head at each performance…or rather for the cleaning up process which followed.

In terms of great characters, I peaked early when next I took on Norman, the catalyst figure in Table Manners, part of Ayckbourn’s lauded trilogy The Norman Conquests. Norman is a ramshackle, bearded librarian with an eye for the ladies and what he would like to think of as a heart of gold, forever claiming to want to make others happy. I actually got to play Norman twice but twenty years apart; the first time I was rather too young and the second time definitely too old. However, he would always be in my top three of characters played, simply for the joy of the glorious words and the complexity of playing someone so apparently generous to others but actually totally self-centred. One scene (though they are all ripe with possibility) forever remains in the memory. This is the very long breakfast scene where Norman gets to deliver what is, virtually, a huge monologue (his relatives aren’t really speaking to him after getting drunk on home-made wine the night before). It is by turns a speech which is hilariously funny and surprisingly cruel. In essence it reveals just about everything which goes to make up the persona of this most rewarding character. I should add that if ever I have need of an audition piece then this is the speech to which I still inevitably turn.

I have also played two different characters in the same play (though not at the same time – nearly thirty years separates my appearances). Season’s Greetings is a perennial Ayckbourn favourite and contains, once again, many all too familiar characters. The first-time round I was the young(ish) host Neville forever disappearing off to his shed much to the annoyance of his wife. Latterly I was the old(ish) house guest uncle Harvey an odious domestic fascist with a great line in invective. I have to say that playing the latter was infinitely more fun than the former simply because he has some of the best lines in the piece. This is nowhere more true than in one of the play’s comic highlights, a disastrous and apparently interminable puppet play based on The Three Little Pigs, performed by kindly but delusional uncle Bernard. Harvey systematically undermines and literally destroys Bernard’s baby and, boy, is there some fun to be had in doing it!

Perhaps the most unusual and unlikely acting moment came when I played the misanthropic Brevis Winterton in Improbable Fiction where I found myself talking about…myself. To explain. As a result of a charity auction in 2004, I had a certificate giving me “the right to name a character in a forthcoming work” by Alan Ayckbourn; this turned out to be the aforementioned play. The story revolves round a writer’s group gathering together to discuss the progress of their latest pieces and read out some extracts. In a twist, their stories come to life and are enacted by the central characters. Brevis Winterton, a teacher at the local school is writing a musical adaptation of The Pilgrim’s Progress (!!) but his writing partner (who goes by the name of John Chapman) has gone AWOL and therefore the writing has stalled. I saw the play in Scarborough and have to say it is an extremely odd feeling sitting in a darkened theatre hearing actors

Brevis (2007)

discussing you, even if the you is a fictional version of you. Then even more bizarrely I found myself in a production of the play in late 2007. I was, you’ve guessed it, Brevis Winterton bemoaning the unprofessional nature of his partner’s commitment to the writing process and thereby portraying a man who was making disparaging remarks about “myself”! And if that isn’t meta-theatrical, I don’t know what is!

As for what I would still like to do…topping the charts here would be a chance to act in in the House and Garden duo. The challenge of moving between two auditoria to play the same character in a pair of concurrently unfolding plays would be enormous fun. Although I’ve thrown my hat into the ring for this on a couple of occasions, unfortunately nothing has come to pass. Here’s hoping. Actually, there are many other Ayckbourn roles which I would love to have had a go at – alas in many instances time’s march has put paid to such ambition. However, I am heartened by the fact that his latest play Birthdays Past Birthdays Present starts with one of the character’s 80th birthday – perhaps there is still room for more.

For the other two parts of the trilogy please click Directing Ayckbourn or Watching Ayckbourn

Meanwhile, for more about the life/works of Alan Ayckbourn please visit