Feb '03 [Home]

Other Arts: Theatre (UK)

Alan Ayckbourn Theatre (Scarborough)
Suburban Outcomes of Epic Tragedy

by Patrick Henry

. . .

Plays of Alan Ayckbourn are adored or detested, especially here in his homebase at Scarborough [Yorkshire], from where he has launched fifty-odd works performed world-wide, almost as frequently as Shakespeare.


Inheriting a studio theatre from the early-demised intellectual Stephen Joseph, he fashioned it into a workshop for his slick domestic comedies that mirror the glib, urbane, new middle-class, who flock to see themselves cast in a mould of self-congratulatory, self-ridiculing narcissism. The work seems partly written by themselves, living cheek-by-jowl with the author's own social circle and theatre-club fraternity, and anticipating every smart line performed, when scarcely out of the mouth of the actor or the author. Photo credit

So nothing can fail, although many of the dozens of plays seem unmemorable, and flimsy in construction and depth of character, inevitable among such an output, almost like a weekly TV series drama.

At times he has a touch of the masters of English farce, Ben Travers (1886-1980) and Brian Rix, daft social confusion brilliantly orchestrated. He fails to attain this standard, ironically, through being more serious than they and their perfectly unreal, asinine world, as per P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975).

Some Ayckbourn plays are mostly farce, and some are mostly ambitious social critique, and many more are an uneasy mixture of the two. Farce shows a tearfully comic human vulnerability akin to tragedy, without social blame attached. Great social drama from Ibsen to Miller points judicially to the causes of malaise. Ayckbourn falls through the middle of all this, being brilliantly dressed-up but having no place to go.

He is a technical innovator in drama, bringing tennis-courts, riverboats with real water onto stage, like a Hollywood director invading drawing-rooms. Yet these works lack memorable characters and ideas.

His best plays, Relatively Speaking (1967) and Absent Friends (1974), are simple in plot and staging, relying on coincidence that embarrasses nervously polite suburbia anxious for correct behaviour and comment upon mundane life vital as the outcome of epic tragedy. Here is genuinely original style and metaphor for human concern, which when performed by good actors rightly earned his reputation. Since then shallow performances in new works of a repetitive nature have failed to help his serious standing.

Citizens here remember bitterly the loss of Stephen Joseph, who stylishly staged Strindberg and Pirandello and others, leaving the town again in the darkness of seaside entertainment of which the Ayckbourn experience has become another variety. ("If you happen to be a teetotal in this town, then God help you, because there is little else to do apart from get drunk and buy shoes."—A. Ayckbourn)

From that period, Absurd Person Singular (1972) is also one of his best constructed and scripted works, but is heavily reliant on, and limited by, the domestic suburban setting which subsequently dominates weaker plays, becoming whimsical satires of TV advertising, a service which that genre now fulfils for itself. In his introduction to that play, the author admitted that he is preoccupied with the idea that people's houses are a key to their personality. His milking of the myths of suburbia has made his deftly unique style, but constricted his potential for serious drama.

(Patrick Henry is a Contributing Editor (UK) to the magazine [Masthead].)

[Ayckbourn is slated to write a new show for the National Youth Musical Theatre which will premiere at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 2003. He usually directs. ("I am not the best director of my plays, but I'm the best one I know. It cuts out the middle man.") —Eds.]