Vintage Alan Ayckbourn: 25 Years OnDate: 8 April 2002
In 1977, Bedroom Farce & Just Between Ourselves both received London premieres. Now, as the first is revived in the West End & the second prepares to tour, biographer Paul Allen recounts that busy period for playwright Alan Ayckbourn.
Behind the Scenes of Bedroom Farce
By the time Alan Ayckbourn's Confusions opened in London in May 1976, there had been not one but two new plays in Scarborough: Bedroom Farce and Just Between Ourselves. Their subsequent appearance in London within five weeks of each other in the spring of 1977 is an indication of just how important Ayckbourn was becoming. Everyone wanted to gather golden eggs while the goose was laying.
Ironically, Peter Hall at the subsidised National, who had always been interested in the 'dark and melancholic strain' in Ayckbourn's work, and only stops himself calling Alan the English Chekhov or Molière because he regards him essentially as the English Ayckbourn, got the lighter of the two plays then coming to London and most certainly the one with the greater commercial potential. Producer Michael Codron got possibly the darkest play Alan has ever written.
To his astonishment, Alan was given eight weeks' rehearsal time at the National for Bedroom Farce. He was used to three or four and didn't really know what he would do with the extra time. Because he was busy in Scarborough, he actually missed the first week of his London debut, and by the time he joined the company, Hall had already worked out the basic moves and entrances. When Alan arrived they ran the show for him, a situation in which the actors had something to prove rather than the writer-director. Then Hall said he was going to pop out. When Alan asked: 'Where to?' he was told: 'Next door.' Hall had already scheduled himself to direct Ben Jonson's Volpone at the same time, so he had always meant Ayckbourn to fly solo. It was a classic, brilliant Hall manoeuvre that achieved the desired effect while leaving everyone feeling safe.
Alan took to his own bed for a couple of days after writing Bedroom Farce at the last minute in London and then having to tear up to Scarborough by car to deliver it. The title was chosen for the printer, as usual, and the play is by no means a bedroom farce in the sense recognised by Feydeau or Ben Travers. It is not about whether anyone had sex with someone they shouldn't have done. But it is set in three bedrooms (all shown on stage together) and involves four couples.
Malcolm and Kate are having another party. The guests we see are Susannah and Trevor, unhappily married and ready to wreck anyone else's relationship; Jan, who might have married Trevor but is saddled with the bed-bound, whining and self-centred Nick; and Ernest and Delia, Trevor's bewildered parents who are quite capable of having a bad time all on their own. There is almost a happy ending when Trevor and Susannah are reconciled, having evicted Malcolm and Kate from their own bedroom, except that Trevor drops off to sleep leaving Susannah trying to boost her own confidence by reciting a mantra to the effect that she is still attractive.
Ayckbourn owns up to being all the men in the play. Like Nick, he'd had a bad back the winter before he wrote it and had been a bad patient. He thought he blundered through his own and other people's lives like Trevor. He has Malcolm's way of dealing with crises as if they are jokes long after this has ceased to be the case, and Malcolm's preoccupation with gadgetry which lets him down. And Ernest's weary response to the claim from Delia that he should have talked more to his son about things that matter deeply - 'Doesn't really leave much to talk about then does it?'- is very familiar.
But in many ways it harks back to his earliest successes at a time when he was ready to move on. It is as if he was defying Peter Hall to do, on the big Lyttelton stage of the National with its conventional proscenium arch, a play that was all about slightly manic seaside entertainment in a tiny room above a library. For many years he even said he resented the play himself, coming when he was turning into a 'winter' playwright. But its sunny nature won him round again and he revived it successfully in the autumn of 2000 for Scarborough and a national tour.
Just Between Ourselves & Two Alans
Just Between Ourselves, Ayckbourn's last play for the Library Theatre in Scarborough, was written at the last moment and, once again, long after the title had been printed in the publicity. It was New Year. He completed the play at about four o'clock in the morning and went out into the Scarborough night to deliver scripts through the letterboxes of actors who would be reading it more or less in public in a few hours' time.
It marked the Scarborough theatre's expansion into a winter season and was the first mature play to be physically written as the December waves started crashing over the piers; Ayckbourn believes he was influenced by the mood. The first scene is in February and the last the following January. In other words it starts bleak and gets bleaker (very little in an Ayckbourn play is ever irrelevant). Frequently referred to as 'the Morris Minor play', it is set in the chaotic garage where Dennis spends most of his life as an ineffectual handyman, ignoring the fact that his wife and mother are battling for possession of his soul indoors.
Initially we seem to be in for a comedy about DIY: Dennis is wrestling with the wires of an electric kettle; the up-and-over door of the garage has jammed; the pilot light on the gas stove has gone out. When Neil calls to see if the car would be suitable as a birthday present for his own wife, Pam, Dennis starts it with difficulty (going from calling it 'my beauty' to 'you bastard' in successive sentences) before it splutters to a standstill. But within the first page or two of dialogue we have also seen him undermine Vera his wife and suggesting it's part of a pattern bordering on a personality defect.
The play is set on four birthdays. Vera's failure to provide her husband with a cake on his birthday is the turning point in her defeat by a mother-in-law who always made Dennis a cake, even when his father was dying. This is the clearest indication yet that the author's real subject is unhappiness so desperate that it drives people mad. The title is one of Dennis's catch-phrases, but it could be the portmanteau title for all Ayckbourn's tragi-comic relationships: what happens between two people? It is at the very least a highly personal play from a man who knows what it is to have a partner and a mother skirmishing over him. 'It is always difficult to please two women at the same time,' he points out with massive understatement.
Alan Strachan directed the West End production of Just Between Ourselves and believes that he never quite pulled it off, despite its apparently brilliant casting. Or perhaps because of it. The late Colin Blakely, an Irish actor universally admired and much loved, played Dennis, with Michael Gambon as Neil. Gambon agrees that he and Blakely were miscast. However, the women in the West End cast were heartrendingly good: Rosemary Leach as Vera, Constance Chapman as Marjorie, positively blossoming as she takes over Dennis's life and home again in the face of Vera's illness, and Stephanie Turner as the only character who has taken a slightly more positive approach to her own life at the end of the play than the beginning, Pam.
I am writing about it, I realise, as if it were a failure. It made nobody's fortune and it left those who had worked on it with a sense that it hadn't quite worked. But it won an Evening Standard Award for Ayckbourn (for the third time) in 1977, and not just for best comedy but for best play.
Paul Allen is the author of Alan Ayckbourn: Grinning at the Edge, published in Methuen hardback (priced £19.99). To win one of ten copies, enter our Prizes & Offers competition, which ends 14 May 2002.
Bedroom Farce, starring Richard Briers and June Whitfield, opens at the West End's Aldwych Theatre on 8 April 2002. Just Between Ourselves, starring Les Dennis, launches a new UK wide tour in July 2002.