Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present – Alan Ayckbourn Interview

Tomorrow evening sees the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s 83rd play at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. This is a doubly special event coming during his 80th birthday year and the 60th anniversary of his playwriting debut in 1959.

To mark the opening of the play, I interviewed Alan Ayckbourn about Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present as well as the special event to mark his 80th birthday, 80 Years Young, at the SJT on 29 September.

Simon Murgatroyd: Your new play is Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present, what can you tantalise us with?
It’s no coincidence that this is a special birthday year – being my 80th. I like to pin things on anniversaries and I thought ‘why not birthdays?’But it’s a bit conventional to have one person maybe having his 20th birthday and 50th and then 80th birthdays – which anyway requires an incredible amount of make-up – so I thought, it would be fun to do it backwards. I think there’s some little vestige of a comment I made many years ago to a journalist when they asked me what I wanted to write next and would it be a farce? I said, well, if it is a farce, it’ll be backwards and probably called Ecraf – which is Farce backwards. I think this is the nearest I’ve got to writing Ecraf.

What else can you tell us?
It’s definitely a fun piece. It starts at the end and then goes backwards to end at the beginning! The first scene climaxes in a surprise and we retrace the steps to what on earth made this happen! Usually in plays, we see the cause first and the effects follow on, but in this case, we see the effect first and our first question is, just how did we get here? We start with a father’s 80th birthday, then head back to the mother’s 60th birthday, then the son’s 30th birthday and, finally, the daughter’s 18th birthday.

Who is the ‘hero’ of the play?
It’s really a story about Adrian, a man who’s trying to deal with and understand women; it’s sort of a companion piece to A Brief History Of Women. He’s thwarted either by circumstances entirely beyond his control or by dint of his parents interfering and raising people’s expectations of him in a way that parents never should do with their children.
Adrian is my archetypal anti-hero in that he is not the cause of anything – he’s buffeted by events over which he has no control at all. I am very fond of these characters – right back to Leonard in Time And Time Again – who do nothing really except cause havoc by doing nothing. I’m always fascinated by people who create such vacuums and other people zooming around being busy, busy, busy while they’re causing more trouble simply by being in this state of inertia. People can’t bear to see other people not doing things, so they think we must help them out, all with the best intentions.

Your last play, Better Off Dead (2018), was quite dark, this sounds a bit lighter.
I thought, ‘I’m running quite a dark seam at the moment, so I’ll just lighten the lamp on the way.’ So this is a throwback to earlier days. I’ve written three other plays yet to be seen that are considerably darker than this – I have an embarrassment of riches at the moment – but I think this is the right play for this year.

Any particular thoughts for the play?
I’m just hoping it’ll work for an audience. The nicest thing people can say is, ‘I never expected that!’ In a sense it’s like talking to a conjurer – ‘I didn’t expect you to produce the chicken from the egg cup!’ By it’s nature, this is a sleight of hand narrative. As an audience you try and second guess the narrative, but if it’s a good narrative, you’ll be surprised. This is a dramatist’s stock in trade and one of the secrets of good narrative. Holding back people’s back expectations and confounding people’s expectations of what is going to happen next. It’s quite fun.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre is celebrating your birthday year with 80 Years Young on 29 September, what can we expect from it?
It’s going to be a celebration of my family plays and it’s going to be read – and sung – by my company plus some guests like the A Brief History Of Plays events at the SJT in 2017. I’ve pulled together scenes from practically all of my family plays – and there’s an awful lot of them! I’ve based it solely on plays I wrote specifically for adult professional actors to play to an audience of children and families.

What’s it been like going back over plays which actually range back to 1960?
I was amazed when I opened Dad’s Tale (1960) – as I’d never set eyes on it since it was performed – how the opening soliloquy by the boy is remarkably sophisticated for that time of my writing. When I really start writing these family shows with Mr A’s Amazing Maze Plays (1988), I realised they get more sophisticated as they go. Mr A’s is a very simple children’s tale – a young girl and her dog – and is none the worse for that. By the time you get to the later ones like Miss Yesterday (2004), we are talking quite serious concepts. Something like The Champion Of Paribanou (1996) is very very dark. Here’s a tale, kids, about a girl who sells her soul to the devil and the man she loves finishes up killing her. You can’t sell it on its synopsis! Parents would be snatching their children away from the box office!

Thank you, Alan, and on behalf of all the blog readers, happy birthday!

Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present can be seen in repertory with Alan Ayckbourn revival of Season’s Greetings until 5 October at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. 80 Years Young is taking place at the Stephen Joseph Theatre on 29 September at 6pm. Further details and bookings for all these can be found at www.sjt.uk.com.

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