Books: Unseen Ayckbourn By Simon Murgatroyd
Sir Alan Ayckbourn, is arguably the country’s greatest living playwright. He is certainly the most prolific - and the majority of his plays received their premiere in Scarborough. Originally, this was in the Library Theatre, the first professional in-the-round company, which he joined in 1957 as an actor and stage manager, and from 1996 in the Stephen Joseph Theatre (SJT).
... is a marvellous miscellany of Ayckbourn’s out-takes, paths not taken, reappraisals and rejections. Both a scholarly work of reference and something ideal for dipping into ...
He retired in 2009 as the company’s Artistic Director after 37 years, having suffering a stroke, but fought back from that misfortune to continue writing and directing. By the last count he has written 87 produced plays and, astonishingly, wrote 8 more in an amazing spurt of creative energy over the Lockdown period.
His national fame began in 1967 when Relatively Speaking
opened to great acclaim at the Duke of York's Theatre, London. In rapid succession How The Other Half Loves, Absurd Person Singular
and The Norman Conquests’
trilogy followed, establishing his reputation as the playwright who could fill an audience with people who don’t normally go to the theatre. In 1975, he had the distinction of having the most professional productions performing simultaneously in the West End.
the newly-updated book by the great man’s archivist, Simon Murgatroyd, is a marvellous miscellany of Ayckbourn’s out-takes, paths not taken, reappraisals and rejections. Both a scholarly work of reference and something ideal for dipping into, it affords precious insights into the working practices of a colossus of the theatre whose mind is endlessly teeming with ideas for new works. But it reveals much more than a creative genius throwing off plays to order at a blinding pace. Instead, we find a perfectionist, never easily satisfied with what he’s written, always looking to improve and push the boundaries.
No single book is ever going to be able to do full justice to such a prodigious output as Ayckbourn’s, still less come to terms with the amount of material he discarded, but this labour of love by a former Scarborough Evening News journalist is a handy place to begin. Probably no one is better placed to have written it than the man who became his archivist in 2003, soon after launching the website which he believes to be the largest single online resource for a living playwright.
The book is packed with genuine insights, some profound, others ephemeral, for the devotee.
The most sensational revelation is undoubtedly that Absurd Person Singular
, perhaps Ayckbourn’s most famous play, a comic masterpiece of social climbing in 1970s’ suburbia, a potent mix of farce and black comedy, was conceived and initially begun as something completely different. Having premiered in Scarborough, on 26 June 1972, it is now celebrating its fiftieth anniversary and is still endlessly revived.
Simon’s archival discovery in two sealed packets of extensive original drafts revealed a rare occasion when the playwright, considered to have the deftest of touches, apparently got it totally wrong - but happily corrected himself and went on to produce an acknowledged classic of British Theatre. This is considered important enough to have its own website: www.absurdpersonsingular.com
Simon’s complete updating of his earlier work which was one of The Stage’s
Books of the Year in 2013 tells us how incredibly productive Ayckbourn was during Lockdown. Many of the 8 new plays he wrote will sadly never be produced by him because he constantly moves on, writing newly-commissioned works. This endless quest to write more probably accounts for why in recent years several plays such as A Case of Missing Wives, Men, Meals
and Me and Truth Will Out
somehow missed their moment. Perhaps, one day they will be given their debut.
The book is packed with genuine insights, some profound, others ephemeral, for the devotee. Absent Friends
, for example, famously plays out in real time yet this was never the original intention. A Chorus of Disapproval
originally had plants in the audience which would burst into song! Bedroom Farce
could not be produced in the round originally as intended because the playwright forgot to measure the size of the beds and they wouldn't fit onto the stage. Relatively Speaking
originally had a third of its content cut by producer Stephen Joseph – who gave his name to Scarborough’s theatre - but still apparently was a great success, before the material was restored for subsequent productions.
How interesting, though perhaps not too surprising given the substantial part board games play in a number of his plays, that Ayckbourn was asked to write the Cluedo movie. He was amused by the idea and gave it serious consideration.
The history of Henceforward...,
abandoned, destroyed and then rewritten, is truly amazing. The darkest of all his plays we can only wonder how truly dystopian the original must have been to have been rejected.
Such astonishing inventiveness coupled with the power to both amuse and disquiet, but always to entertain ...
Incidentally, Simon originally saw the play as a teenager and it inspired his lifelong love of theatre. Apparently, Just Between Ourselves
was so much bleaker in concept, with a greater accent on mental health issues.
House & Garden,
two plays for simultaneous staging, a coup de théâtre requiring the same cast to move with split-second timing between two auditoria, was gestating for 27 years before coming to fruition. It is one of many examples of his desire to think outside the four-walled box, do things in the round well-nigh impossible in conventional theatre. Such astonishing inventiveness coupled with the power to both amuse and disquiet, but always to entertain, have won him worldwide fame and many honours, including Olivier and Tony awards.
The alphabetical arrangement highlights Ayckbourn’s extreme facility for creating witty, enigmatic and snappy titles. It quickly becomes clear that many of them, from Relatively Speaking
to Way Upstream
, were dreamed up before pen had even been put to paper in order to meet advertising deadlines.
Sir Alan Ayckbourn, prolific playwright, acclaimed director and national treasure is now in his 84th year. He first came to Scarborough in 1957 and has stayed ever since, now happy to be considered an adopted Yorkshireman. Appointed CBE in 1987, he received the ultimate accolade in 1997 when knighted for 'services to theatre'.
This beautifully written book, by his dedicated archivist Simon Murgatroyd, a noted authority on all things Ayckbourn, seems certain to be a primary source for future biographers and historians of theatre. It is also an absolutely fascinating reading for all who have laughed loudly at an Ayckbourn play before feeling the onset of a melancholy smile, just a little saddened by what he tells us about ourselves. Now we can read about some of the many things he didn’t tell us