Yesterday marked the anniversary of Alan Ayckbourn’s Mr A’s Amazing Maze Plays opening at the National Theatre, London, in 1993. The play had actually premiered five years earlier at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, Scarborough, and marked the first of Alan’s ‘family’ plays, a very significant strand in his writing career. This article was written by Alan Ayckbourn for the National Theatre production.
Live & Dangerous by Alan Ayckbourn
When I was very young I spent a lot of my life in the cinema. Literally. During the school holidays regularly, four to five hours a day. Often my brother and I would sit through a programme twice, settling down in our seats as soon as the doors opened at one thirty and still sitting there at six.
Usually we watched the film twice in the hope that perhaps next time around it would be different. Maybe the bad guy would win. Maybe the hero wouldn’t marry the goody goody heroine but the wicked woman in riding breeches who sneered at everyone and smoked cigars.
Alas, nothing ever changed, no matter how many times we sat through it. I suppose in our heart of hearts we knew we were asking the impossible.
Then we discovered the theatre and went to that as well. Especially the local amateur pantomimes. Several times we went, often two or three nights in a row. For there things did alter. Sets would fall down or people would forget their lines or fail to come on in the right place. Or best of all, come on in the wrong place and just stand there whilst everyone else on stage pretended not to notice them.
And once, blessed memory, a totally different actor took over the leading role due to the “sudden indisposition” of the dame. An understudy dragged in off the street who clearly had no idea what to say, when to say it or where to go next and who had to be nudged round the stage by the other players. That was a terrific night.
If there was to be a choice between the two, I knew then and there it had to be a theatrical life for me.
Later, after a few years in the theatre though, I discovered a disappointing fact. In general, the better the standard became the less likely the performance was to vary from night to night. In the elevated realms of Good Professional Theatre, nobody forgot their lines much. The scenery rarely fell down and although, true, once or twice an understudy had to go on, these were generally rather good and no-one would really have known the difference.
And yet curiously, as a footnote to this, whenever a group of actors get talking together, it is always the disasters that they remember with affection. It’s the copper bottomed catastrophes that make the best stories. Who can ever remember an enjoyable theatrical anecdote that began, “I remember once I was in this enormously smooth running success …”?
As time went by a new rival appeared to challenge the theatre. Television. That held me in thrall for many years during its early unrehearsed chaotic days when TV plays would often feature more shots of camera-men than they did of actors. When behind every Hamlet crouched a furtive studio manager. It was live and dangerous. Television quite appealed to me for a while.
Then sadly, as time went by, they seemed to get the hang of things and TV got smoother and slicker and pre-recorded and better rehearsed and then the only spontaneity came from the sports programmes and all the mistakes and disasters got relegated to the cutting room floor or to those jolly programmes at Christmas time.
And as I looked anew at the live theatre (which some wrongly consider a dying art form) I realised that it was its very liveness, its unique unexpectedness that we should be celebrating. I resolved now and again to try to write a play to demonstrate this. I started modestly with a piece with variable middle scenes, called Sisterly Feelings, which the National produced in 1980. I then became bolder and wrote a cycle of two-handers entitled Intimate Exchanges which had a potential nightly choice of 16 endings. And now, Mr A’s Amazing Maze Plays which depends largely on you, the audience. Where two shows are virtually guaranteed not to be the same twice. And where the actors genuinely haven’t a clue what’s going to happen next until you tell them.
Well, at the very least, it should form the basis of a few good theatrical stories in years to come.
© Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.
You can find out more about Mr A’s Amazing Maze Plays, its development and history in its in-depth section at Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website here.