Tamara Harvey On … Bedroom Farce

“There was a lovely moment when I met him for the first time in Scarborough,” Tamara Harvey says. “We were walking along the corridor round the back of the theatre, where there’s a wall with a poster for each of his plays. He turned round and, with a little twinkle in his eye and a look of such humility, said, ‘Those are my plays’. I thought, ‘I know, you’re Alan Ayckbourn!’. It was as though he couldn’t quite believe that he’d written them all.”

Having met him when she directed three short plays, Purvis, Storm in a Tea Chest and The Prodigal Son (2006), and a full-length one, Touch Wood (2007), at Stephen Joseph Theatre, Harvey is now tackling one of Ayckbourn’s plays for the first time. She is heading the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s new production of 1975’s Bedroom Farce, marshalling a cast including Denise Black (‘Coronation Street’, ‘Queer as Folk’) and Niky Wardley (‘The Catherine Tate Show’, ‘Peep Show’).

The axis of the play’s plot is a tempestuous housewarming party that leaves four couples divided between three beds and, indeed, generally. Harvey tells me that, despite its title, “it isn’t a farce. That begs the question of why he called it one, but he famously writes the titles before the plays. I think that the distinction is that, in farce, you’ve got larger than life characters in ridiculous situations, whereas, in Ayckbourn, you’ve got characters that are not exaggerated or caricatured in increasingly ridiculous situations.”

Considering that Ayckbourn normally writes for compact spaces, Bedroom Farce’s logistics might seem like malformed maths, as they require three beds to be onstage simultaneously. Harvey explains the apparent anomaly: “He wrote it for the (National Theatre’s) Lyttleton, which is a proscenium arch. It’s the only play that, when first done in Scarborough, wasn’t done in the round. He and the designer sat there and said, ‘We can’t make it work’, so they did it on a thrust stage. It wasn’t until the revival in 2000 when he did it in the round.” Resuming the eulogy that she began earlier when describing WYP rehearsal arrangements, she goes on to tell me that “the nice thing about the Courtyard is that it’s a big enough stage that you can fit three bedrooms onto it without it feeling like they’re squashed together”.

The WYP’s decision to produce one of Ayckbourn’s plays in the season following his departure as SJT artistic director suggests a wish to celebrate his contribution to theatre in Yorkshire. However, the selection of Bedroom Farce is unlikely to have been equally straightforward, considering that he has written 71 other plays. (This figure is only the ascetic official one – fluid definitions might put the figure as high as 100.) Harvey talks about a coalescence of several elements in her summary of the production’s background. “Having never done an Ayckbourn before, I was hugely excited about that, and (artistic director) Ian Brown approached me with this play in mind,” she begins. “I’d read it but hadn’t seen it, which is always a good combination because it means that you know the play but don’t have someone else’s production in your head. I think it’s beautifully crafted and very funny and true – it has so many moments when you think, ‘Oh, that’s me, I know that feeling’.”

This effect, Harvey reasons, is partly due to the play’s presentation of marriage, in whose thicket of complications much of Ayckbourn’s work is caught. “What’s interesting is that there are four marriages and each is at a very different stage. You have what he refers to as ‘love’s young dream’ – the just-married couple doing up their first house and chasing each other around with cans of shaving foam. At the other end of the scale you have Ernest and Delia, who have been married for however long – their children have left home and it’s their wedding anniversary and you assume it must be thirty years, at least. Then there are two couples in between. It speaks of a kind of intimate understanding of human nature on a much broader scale than his own experience, one assumes – a kind of shortcut into the heart of people’s emotions and desires and the darker sides of their characters – the side of us that will shout at the person we love and seek to hurt them. I think he said that the great thing about marriage – or a relationship between two people who are in love or have been – is that it’s one of the most common experiences of human existence. So you’re kind of onto a winner.”

-Tamara Harvey was talking to Simon Walker

Bedroom Farce is at West Yorkshire Playhouse from 6 June to 4 July