“I immensely enjoy writing plays for children, or really what I prefer to call the ‘family’ audience, because it’s probably as hard, if not harder, than writing for adults.”
One of the most significant, yet frequently ignored, strands of Alan Ayckbourn’s writing is his plays for children and young people. Between 1988 and 2003, writing the ‘family’ plays became practically an annual occurrence for the playwright.
And as the body of work increased, so it became obvious they were a highly significant aspect of his writing which the author treated as seriously as any of his ‘adult’ plays; emphasised by the fact he draws no distinction between the importance of the two sides of his writing.
Alan began writing ‘family’ plays in 1988 with Mr A’s Amazing Maze Plays (there were two very early attempts in 1960 and 1962 with Dad’s Tale and Christmas V Mastermind, but the playwright would prefer we ignore these…), motivated by twin concerns about theatre.
“After thirty years writing exclusively for adults, it was only in 1988 that I began seriously to consider the prospect of creating something specifically for a younger audience. I sensed a gap at the time that I felt badly needed addressing – namely, that there was precious little ‘serious’ theatre writing being done for younger children either for them to watch or to perform. Apart from any other consideration I became conscious, too, as the long serving artistic director of a regional company, that as a result of this neglect we were actively discouraging our future audience.”
Determined to rectify this, Alan wrote Mr A’s Amazing Maze Plays which established thematic motifs which would recur in future plays but also, essentially, did not condescend to its audience.
“Children sat quite happily watching the ‘adult plays’. I began to see that you don’t have to throw your brain out of the window when you write for children. You just use a different set of muscles. More and more parents began to bring children to my adult plays, so I realised you could still write about issues for a younger audience. What I aim to do is write something that I would like to have seen when I was a child myself.”
The lessons learnt from this helped define the methodology Alan would bring to all his writing for young people.
“You have to be more aware. Children won’t lie to you – they judge you immediately. They can get bored very quickly. Adults are polite people normally and if something is a little boring, they’ll sit and watch it and think, ‘Well, it’ll get more interesting in a minute.’ But children just go, ‘Boring’ and turn round and talk to their friends. All the things that matter in any sort of theatre matter twice as much for children. Good story, good dialogue, characters you are interested in.”
Alan followed it up in 1989 with Invisible Friends, which emphasised the spectacle of live theatre with magical effects such as a bedroom tidying itself, whilst incorporating some of the moral dilemmas found in his ‘adult’ writing. Often seen as a companion piece to Woman In Mind, it emphasised the one place where Alan feels the ‘family’ plays must diverge.
“It’s fair enough to leave adults in a dark cupboard; they can find their way out, but I have this touching faith that if you say to a group of children ‘this can’t be done’, they might believe you, when there might be a potential Einstein out there who will find the path to the stars.”
The response to these plays, both of which transferred to the National Theatre, bolstered Alan’s growing confidence and he began to experiment with concepts of character, time and space with This I Where We Came In (1990) and My Very Own Story (1991).
“It was about now that I began to stop concerning myself about what limits I should observe in children’s writing and concentrated on how far I could take it.”
These plays also signalled the point when Alan realised the larger challenge was creating something that was satisfying for the entire family – which didn’t mean just throwing in a few jokes for the Mums and Dads.
“By My Very Own Story, I’m barely dealing with anything I wouldn’t be dealing with in an adult play. The whole thing has become adult plays edited very slightly. They are not really children plays at all; they are family plays. Because I began to see very clearly that what was really fascinating was not a children’s audience but an audience in which parents could bring their children. Parents could enjoy the play as well, the children could enjoy the play equally maybe on slightly different levels, occasionally, but generally much the same, but enjoy it in the company of their parents which seemed to me very positive and much more satisfying.”
Between these plays, Callisto 5 (1990) appeared; to all intents and purposes a stage version of the movie Alien which also tapped into the popularity of video gaming. In 1994, he wrote The Musical Jigsaw Play and in 1996, The Champion Of Paribanou. Enthusiastically described by the Financial Times as “Star Wars meets the Arabian Nights”, the latter is an epic adventure which draws on science fiction and fantasy influences, with everything from flying carpets to sword-fights. It also had some serious moral questions about the decisions we make and their consequences and effect.
“I think there’s a mistaken belief that children go to the theatre to laugh and nothing else. They have a bigger appetite than that. My first plays were quite light but as I’ve grown darker I’ve noticed children get more involved.”
Just as light and dark permeate Alan’s adult work, so the ‘family’ plays became more nuanced, balancing the light and dark. For all the adventure and comedic elements within The Champion of Paribanou, there are also more weighty issues such as responsibility, allegiance and the abuse of power. When the protagonists, Ahmed and Murgannah, swear their loyalty and love early in the narrative, they are put on a path which, essentially, leads to Murgannah selling her soul in exchange for power and revenge. There are few darker exits for any Ayckbourn character than hers as Death embraces her and – in the 2006 Scarborough revival – they descend into fiery depths together.
The Boy Who fell Into A Book (1998) tied in with the National Year Of Reading and promoted the pleasures of reading with a young hero drawn through the books on his shelf alongside a hard-boiled detective. If previous plays had been inspired by ‘adult’ plays, this was the first to inspire an ‘adult’ play with Improbable Fiction (2005) which featured characters moving between different literary genres.
In 2000, Alan teamed up with the composer Denis King and united his interests of writing for young people and musicals with an ambitious time-travelling play Whenever which drew in influences from The Time Machine to The Wizard Of Oz, Doctor Who to Star Wars. The overarching theme though has become even more relevant today than it was then – asking the youth off today to think about the future, what we are doing to the planet and placing responsibility for it in their hands.
“I like to do a children’s play that ties in with my adult play, and I suppose there’s also a bit of re-telling of Communicating Doors. Whenever has a slightly pessimistic view of a possible future, where we need to talk to each other more. In a way the play is a moral lesson about thinking about the future now and not leaving it till it’s too late.”
Whenever prepared the way for what is undoubtedly Alan’s most ambitious ‘family’ play, Orvin – Champion Of Champions. Denis King again composed the full-length musical which featured the largest cast ever to appear in an Ayckbourn play. A theatrical extravaganza, it was commissioned by the National Youth Music Theatre, directed by Alan and Laurie Sansom and featured more than 40 teenagers.
Such was his confidence in the talents of all involved, it was scheduled to run for two weeks in the main-house at the Stephen Joseph Theatre at the height of the summer tourist season. A stronger statement of intent towards drama for young people you are not likely to find.
The ‘family’ cycle of plays draws to a close with The Jollies (2002), My Sister Sadie (2003) and Miss Yesterday (2004), which featured slightly older protagonists and an increased willingness to throw adult issues into the mix.
“The trick with writing for children is understanding they like a very strong plot, and for a story to he quite scary. When you look at all the great children’s writers, from Roald Dahl to Philip Pullman, there’s always a dark element.”
My Sister Sadie, written in 2001, was pertinent in dealing with a Weapon Of Mass Destruction, as well as exploring the dangers of technology, corruption in authority and sibling loss. While Miss Yesterday offered the heroine a chance to step back in time to save her brother from a fatal accident, but in doing so threatening the whole of humanity’s existence from a ravaging cancer – save your brother or save the world? What kind of a question is that to ask of anyone, let alone a distraught teenager in mourning for the only person who believed in her?
“I have progressed as I have written for this audience. I’ve deepened and broadened it from quite a simple storybook where nothing much happened but for a bit of danger and always with a safety net. More recently I’ve been fascinated to see how far I can push it, and as long as you give them characters to associate with or identify with, they’re not worried about getting the jokes. They want to be involved and sometimes they want to be moved, and that’s what theatre has over other art forms.”
Alan suffered a stroke in 2006 and this led to his decision to announce his retirement as Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Ironically, it also closed the door on his ‘family’ writing. As Artistic Director, he had been able to commission these plays and guarentee their production; away from that position and he could no longer make that decision and the guarentee that challenging and entertaining works with the full resources of the SJT to draw upon was lost.
Despite this, Alan’s ‘family’ plays are ignored at your peril. Ultimately, there is little difference between them and the ‘adult’ writing; the themes are strikingly similar and the ideas as inventive and thrilling. In 2019, the playwright celebrated his 80th birthday and 60th playwriting anniversary with an evening at the SJT dedicated to celebrating his family plays – demonstrating without a doubt how important he feels they are to his playwriting canon.
Indeed, as the author notes, since 1988 all of his plays have been coloured by his writing for young people – an no doubt will continue to be.
“To write for such an audience sharpens your playwriting skills no end. It’s affected my adult work, I know. In fact, one such play, Wildest Dreams – a quite frightening play – is in one sense entirely a children’s play. I’d never have written it if I hadn’t experienced the thrills and spills of writing for the younger audience.”
© Haydonning Ltd. Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without the permission fo the copyright holder.