Happy 45th Birthday, Bedroom Farce!

Forty-five years ago – on 16 June 1975 – Alan Ayckbourn’s classic comedy Bedroom Farce premiered at the Library Theatre, Scarborough.

It was his first play to be commissioned by the National Theatre – where it would have its London debut during 1977 – and is one of the most successful, performed and loved of his plays.

To mark the anniversary, the blog reproduces Alan Ayckbourn’s own thoughts about the play from an article first published during 2000.

Bedroom Farce world premiere programme cover (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Bedroom Farce by Alan Ayckbourn

Early in 1975, I collaborated with Andrew Lloyd Webber on one of the great musical disasters of the decade, the earlier Mark 1 version of Jeeves. Recoiling from the scathing, occasional downright gleeful criticism we justly deserved, I consoled myself by setting about writing my obligatory yearly Scarborough summer play.

In the time honoured tradition, I announced the title long before a word was written. The play was thrust into the actors’ hands at the first read-through, having been finished the night before and unread til then by any of them. Slightly less traditionally though, on this occasion the title actually bore some resemblance to the play I was to write. I’d decided to call it Bedroom Farce.

I am often asked where I get my ideas from as if somewhere I have this large box secretly buried, to which I cautiously return every year under cover of darkness. I sometimes wish I had. In fact, play ideas usually come from various sources and numerous quite random directions. Some arrive mere fragments but then hopefully combine with other fragments to create some sort of whole. These are a few of them…

Stanley Page as Ernest & Heather Stoney as Delia in the world premiere (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Someone jokingly remarked after The Norman Conquests that there were very few rooms left in the house for me to visit – except the bedroom and the bathroom. (The bathroom came later in A Small Family Business). I stored the idea of a bedroom away for later. Though even at that juncture it crossed my mind that if I did write a bedroom play it might be more interesting and unusual to avoid those more predictable elements of bedroom behaviour, namely sexual activity and sleeping.

A year or so earlier, Sheila Hancock had invited Peter Hall to see Absurd Person Singular in which she was appearing at the Criterion theatre. Peter subsequently wrote to me suggesting I do something for the new National Theatre which was shortly to open. I took a trip round its South Bank site, in particular to view the shell of the incomplete Lyttelton Theatre. My first impression was that it was less a theatre, more a football stadium. I had never written for such a vast stage. Overall the acting area was probably some ten times the size of the in-the-round arena I was used to. I decided the only way to tackle such a space would be to divide it. A multiple location set was called for; not one bedroom, then, but several.

During one long Scarborough season, in the days when the company all tended to live together in one rented boarding house, I had got into one of those post-show, late-night conversations with a troubled actor busily recounting the recent failure of some personal relationship. His wife? His lover? His mother? I forget. At around 2am when everyone else had retired, I also made my excuses but the unfortunate man was too far gone – a mixture of tiredness, emotional trauma and alcohol – to take the hint. Eventually, abandoning politeness, I left and went upstairs to my bedroom where my wife was already in bed. Oblivious, the actor followed me and, uninvited, sat on my bed still in full flow. As he droned on, I undressed and joined my wife in bed. Finally lights were switched off and she and I eventually fell asleep, lulled by the reassuring drone of his voice. In the morning we discovered him curled up at the foot of our bed like some large dog. One that I was later to name Trevor.

Janet Dale as Jan & Christopher Godwin as Trevor in the world premiere (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

To all this you should add my firm belief in the power of number three, the source of much good comedy (do it once, they’ll look up, do it twice, you’ll have their attention, do it a third time and they’re ready to laugh) and Bedroom Farce was all but written. Three beds, three bedrooms, three couples and a fourth couple straight from their wildest nightmares.

The only drawback occurred when we first tried to stage it on the tiny Library Theatre stage. The three beds required wouldn’t fit on it. In the end, we pulled out an entire seating block and did it in a three sided format.

It wasn’t until 1999 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, that I directed the play in-the-round. In fact, come to think of it, that was the first time I directed the play (or indeed seen or even read it) since that heady period when I first co-directed it with Peter Hall back in 1977. It was greeted in some critical quarters with disapproving clucks. Why was our National Theatre, the temple of High Art, presenting such commercial candy floss? God bless Peter Hall, I say. In the event, I hope I repaid his faith.

A rare image showing the stage layout for the world premiere (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

The play certainly provided that theatre with its first major hit in the new building, transferring eventually to the West End and then to Broadway. Since then it has played, and is still playing all over the world featuring successions of German, French, Finnish, Polish, American, Spanish, Italian and Japanese Susannahs and Trevors spreading their angst through the bedrooms of others in a babble of different languages. What on earth did I start?

You can find out more about Alan Ayckbourn’s play Bedroom Farce at the playwright’s official website by clicking here.

Article copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Images copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.

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