|by Alan Ayckbourn
Directed by Alan Hooper
October 11 & 12, 1996
[ Photographs ]
Alan Ayckbourn is now one of Britain's most commercially successful playwrights, with
regular West End and repertory productions. He has written forty-nine plays to date of
which twenty-five have been produced in the West End, at the National Theatre or at the
Born in London in 1939, he left school at eighteen and started his theatrical career as
an actor and stage manager with Donald Wolfit's Studio Theatre Company. In the early 1960s
he moved to Stephen Joseph's Studio Theatre Company, where he began directing and writing
with the encouragement of Joseph. His first big success, Relatively Speaking,
opened in London in 1967.
He is now Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, for which he
first writes his plays. Although many of these have transferred to London, he continues to
be based in Scarborough. He is also an established director not only of his own work but
other peoples. He says of himself that he is a director who writes rather than a writer
who directs. He received an award for his direction of the National Theatre production of A
View From A Bridge by Arthur Miller. His production of Conversations With My
Father transferred to the Old Vic from Scarborough.
He is a superb theatrical craftsman and his plays are often constructed around a tour
de force of staging: The Norman Conquests is a trilogy of plays each of which
stands on its own and presents the same events from the garden, sitting room and dining
room. How The Other Half Loves, Absurd Person Singular and Bedroom
Farce each present more than one household on stage simultaneously; Way Upstream
required a river boat on the stage of the National Theatre.
His plays have their roots in the tradition of farce. He has, however, stretched the
boundaries of comedy and farce as his work has developed; increasingly the comings and
goings of married couples are injected with a note of black comedy and social groups have
an undercurrent which suggests the darker side of human interchange. Absent Friends
contains many examples of these.
One reason for his success might be that his work challenges his audience, but
challenges them within well defined limits. The subject matter of many of his plays is
middle class values together with a lifestyle under threat - but not too much. His
characters remind us of people we know (never ourselves). The comedy comes from being
thankful that we have avoided being involved with such people in such grotesque comic
situations. Absent Friends is a masterpiece of social embarrassment, a
beautifully intricate piece where silence becomes punishment, created, as it constantly
is, by a mis-timed phrase or a mis-chosen word; "Don't drown it" requests Marge
of the milk quota in her tea.
Ayckbourn makes his audience work by creating, in their imaginations, off-stage worlds
and characters who are jokes in themselves. In Absent Friends the dreadful
Gordon, who looks like "a polythene bag full of water" is just such a character.
Many of his characters want to be someone else. In this play John wants Paul's success,
Diana wants to join the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. If they don't want to be someone
else they don't appear to enjoy their existence - Evelyn, for example.
Ayckbourn's plays are known throughout the world - he even has a street named after him
on Broadway (New York). He was appointed a CBE in 1987 and holds a number of honorary
degrees. During 1992 he was the Cameron Mackintosh Professor of Contemporary Theatre at St
Catherine's College, Oxford.
"If you write comedies you've got to be serious about them and take
the characters seriously; and all the best comedy is rooted in deeply serious things and
throws light upon aspects of life we're frightened to think about. This will make me sound
like Max Bygraves, but it seems to me a good thing if you can outline some of the small
areas of grey anxiety in people's minds and say that this can be dealt with a little more