“Just Between Ourselves,,,”, “Man of the Moment…” and “Private Fears in Public Places” – the titles of the Alan Ayckbourn plays being performed this summer in Northampton somehow express the playwright’s diverse worlds: intimate conversation, headline declaration and a sociological thesis-heading. All come, of course, with laughs but they have their darker sides too. As the season reaches its climax Timothy Ramsden meets Laurie Sansom, Artistic Director at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate Theatre and former Ayckbourn associate, who put the season together.
Read on . . .
Once upon a time, a time called the 1970s, Alan Ayckbourn’s plays were a gift to subsidised theatres. Popular enough to bring in audiences, they were also high-quality and so satisfied arts-funders, providing a win-win situation.
Things have changed. Along came John Godber, with a new, rougher popularity several notches down the east coast in Hull. Along came the reaction – all those Ayckbourn middle-classes with their marital problems. What a tiny world it seemed. And along came changes in Ayckbourn’s plays.
Yet both leading theatre director Peter Hall and Guardian critic Michael Billington have said these plays will reveal to future generations what life was like in the 20th-century’s later decades. And, OK, that might mean what the middle-class, white, largely heterosexual experience was like. But to prove the wider point, and show some of Ayckbourn’s variety, Northampton Royal & Derngate’s Artistic Director Laurie Sansom has gone back to Ayckbourn, 50 years after the playwright’s first, co-written comedy The Square Cat.
No-one’s better placed to do this. Before he came to Northampton in 2006, Sansom had spent four years as associate with Ayckbourn at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, the Scarborough repertory named after the effective founder of modern British theatre-in-the-round where Ayckbourn had been in charge from the late sixties (he left in January this year).
THREE PLAYS OUT OF SEVENTY-THREE.
Sansom’s programmed three Ayckbourn revivals this summer, representing different phase of the playwright’s development. First, from 1976, came Mark Rosenblatt’s revival of Just Between Ourselves. It’s the play which, in the once-familiar pattern for Ayckbourn, premiered in Scarborough then came recast to London, famously running in the West End while the lighter-hearted Bedroom Farce pushed the National Theatre’s repertoire into extra matinees to accommodate the crowds.
Fewer flocked to Just Between Ourselves, which Sansom traces as the start of a darker Ayckbourn mood. It’s still set in his early four-scene format, with a neat structural idea: the attempt to sell a car in scenes set on the characters’ birthdays. Lives crumble away like the car’s value. It, like the people, seems as purposeless as middleclass England. But, shockingly, a farcical third-scene climax is followed by a final section where one character sits silently, suffering a breakdown.
Sansom says it’s hardly surprising marriage has a rough time in Ayckbourn. His strong-willed mother, who played the major part in bringing him up, had two disastrous marriages nearly leading to a breakdown, while Ayckbourn’s first, very youthful, speedily-arranged nuptial turned out badly. Then again, at a discussion during the Northampton season, Ayckbourn responded to a question about his unhappy stage marriages by pointing out how dull happy marriages are, speculating that if he wrote one, within ten minutes audiences would be willing the husband to hit his wife.
Perhaps the most prescient play of this early period is 1972’s Absurd Person Singular, a favourite of Sansom, in which a pushy young property-developer and his timid wife gain money and power over more established people – something of a hare-and-tortoise story, it ends with a vicious image. “It’s like a Chekhov play – it is The Cherry Orchard, with this up-and-coming middle-class couple finding their ascendancy. It’s amazing to find three middle-class couples of such different status. It’s very prescient, coming way before the time of the upwardly-mobile middle-classes.”
Sansom relates Cherry Orchard too to 1980’s Way Upstream, a departure into political symbolism as an unhappily married middle-class pair on a boating holiday are first helped then menaced by people who come on board mid-journey. Sansom relates Vince, the forceful newcomer, to Chekhov’s Lopakhin, the energetic, effectual voice of a new world (though I’d say Vince is a starker, nastier version).
DECADES OF LONELINESS.
Absurd Person also shows people locked in their loneliness yet unable to find solace in each other.” That could go for the most recent play in Northampton’s season, 2004’s Private Fears in Public Places. It’s a play where Ayckbourn has made formal developments too, something brilliantly reflected in Sansom’s own staging, which creates several pools of action in the characters’ fragmented urban lives. The audience sits around, and among, these islands of action in seating reflecting the play’s locales – bar-stools, domestic sofas etc.
In two-handed scenes of quiet desperation, each character’s shown in both a private and a business-like setting. It shows something Sansom finds as key to Ayckbourn’s work overall, “On the surface there are a lot of characters who are painfully straightforward and ordinary. But what emerges is how they are extraordinary.” What emerges in Fears is drunkenness, semi-sublimated sex, shyness and unhappy homelife.
By 1988, the time of this season’s final production, Man of the Moment, Ayckbourn had moved beyond the ingenious staging devices and pictures of small communities in southern England (strangely for a writer admittedly born in London, but living most of his adult life in North Yorkshire). In 1985 Woman in Mind seemed to mark a development, after the previous year’s A Chorus of Disapproval. Chorus shares secret kinky sex with <>Private Fears and has the usual dollops of misery, but is essentially a realistic comedy of small-town life set around a troubled production of The Beggar’s Opera
Woman in Mind, which Sansom sees as a development of Just Between Ourselves’nervous breakdown, moved into the realm of fantasy and ends with the mental disintegration of its main character, unhappily-married vicar’s wife Susan. As withWay Upstream, there’s the motif of the welcome stranger – here, a whole family conjured-up in Susan’s mind – who turns vicious. But Man of the Moment is again realistic, examining the early stages of modern celebrity culture. Here, a former bank-robber is lauded as a TV personality while the have-a-go hero who foiled him is ignored; though things turn out a tad more complex.
The ‘public’ plays, as Ayckbourn thinks of them, like Man of the Moment, start with a social situation, unlike earlier pieces where characters tended to follow from the chosen theatrical technique. Yet he still likes a challenge. Writing almost always for theatre-in-the-round, on two of the three occasions he hasn’t done so he wrote scripts that couldn’t be staged with a surrounding audience. Meanwhile, some plays, Sansom believes, survive better than others. Those tending towards science-fiction have tended to be less revived, for example. Others are rooted in their time.
PLAYS OF THEIR TIME.
During Sansom’s time at Scarborough, Ayckbourn directed a revival of the early (1971) Time and Time Again. It was, the younger director believes, insufficiently kept in its own period, “it did not look completely set in the time it was written. Male/female relationships have changed so much, it couldn’t be done now. The production should have been rooted in its own period, when there was acceptance of sexual harassment.”
He’s chosen three plays that reflect their times as well as being among Ayckbourn’s more durable (in the case of Private Fears perhaps it should be said likely to be durable). Among those that are not so imperishable are the science-fiction comedies, such as 1987 dystopic and (it seems to me) youth-fearing Henceforward….
Yet Ayckbourn is never that simple. His later plays indicate distrust of technology; Comic Potential, 1998 (which added Janie Dee to the stream of subsequently famous performers to pass through Scarborough) shows an android acquiring human feelings. And mobile ‘phones usually come in for an ear-wigging. It seems Ayckbourn has ‘phone-phobia generally. In four years at Scarborough Sansom received only one call from his boss, and that was to offer him a job in the first place.
He apparently loves e-mails, however, and his East London base, unlike the Scarborough home, is modern-style and minimalist yet kitted out with the e-technology of someone who loves e-mails. After Sansom had done an early production he awaited his artistic director’s judgment. None came. So, with a nervous edge, he asked what Ayckbourn thought. A couple of days later came the response in a three page e-mail.
An idea of the London home’s appearance could be found in ‘Damsels in Distress’ the cover-name for three separate plays on one set, a flat that was a lookalike for Ayckbourn’s pied-a-terre. ‘Damsels’ also saw his falling out with West End ways The three plays had played in repertoire during 2001 in Scarborough, and that’s how they transferred.
Soon, though, the London management changed this to give one play, GamePlan a near straight run, its companions being reduced to a single weekly performance. Since then new Ayckbourns have followed a different trajectory: summer in Scarborough, possibly extended to a few other theatres-in-the-round during autumn. Then, in association with Guildford’s proscenium-arch Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, there has followed a spring tour, redirected for proscenium houses by Ayckbourn with, as far as possible, the Scarborough cast.
It points to the power Ayckbourn has earned in theatre, not just as a successful playwright but as a director (Arthur Miller apparently thought Ayckbourn’s London revival of A View from the Bridge definitive). Accordingly, his scripts have the detail and guidance for actors that a director would be expected to provide.
So acute is the writing in terms of performance that Sansom says the plays, “can be frustrating to direct. He’s always right. You try something different, you think you know where you’re going. But you end up going back to Alan Ayckbourn, with his technical mastery, and rhythm of action.” So, for example, the line ending in a row of dots (indicating the speaker trailing off) is distinguished from one cut off by a dash (an interruption), though there are subtle variations.
As a director, Ayckbourn doesn’t talk about or try to create laughs, going for the truth of a situation. “In his own productions, Ayckbourn wants actors to make their own choices – or make them think they have. After he’s blocked the action, instead of overt notes, rehearsals are punctuated by his anecdotes.” Later, the actor realises the point of the story, and that he’s just received a director’s note. By then the point has been absorbed into the performer’s understanding of their part, rather than being an external imposition – the sort that leads to those awkwardly unconvincing moments in a production.
Not every performer can achieve this, and there are some actors who don’t fit well into Ayckbourn’s plays. Just as some directors can try to impose externals. Partly it might be the suppressed panic of wanting laughs from audiences who will have come along (certainly with the early, and much-revived plays) expecting them.
Often enough, laughs don’t come for the first fifteen minutes until we get to know the characters and recognise them – and ourselves in them. “Characters deceive themselves, playing games to avoid recognition. It’s very British not to admit a problem and get through with smiles and stoicism. So people make themselves look ridiculous. And we laugh at this familiar sight.”
Whether in the early plays’ small communities or in a wider world, something important is at stake. It’s here, rather than in short-term performance tricks, the laughter is going to lie. And Ayckbourn, writer and director, knows who ultimately is going to raise the laugh, open the truth. After he’d done a couple of one-act lunchtime shows in the Stephen Joseph’s restaurant, Sansom was surprised to be offered the associate job and asked why. The reply was that Ayckbourn could see he valued actors.
Now the actors are opening Man of the Moment, culmination of Northampton’s Ayckbourn summer. After two strong revivals it had better be good. And it probably will be. For the person they’ve brought in to direct – man of the Royal & Derngate moment – wrote it in the first place.
Thanks – as so often in Ayckbourn matters – to www.alanayckbourn.net, run by Simon Murgatroyd and a fact-checker’s paradise.
Man of the Moment directed by Alan Ayckbourn runs at Northampton’s Royal Theatre 27 July-15 August. 01604 624811 or www.royalandderngate.co.uk