Exclusive Interview: Just Between Ourselves

Alan Ayckbourn was due to revive his classic 1976 play Just Between Ourselves this summer at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.

Although that’s now not happening, I did interview the playwright just prior to lockdown about his thoughts on, arguably, one of his most significant works. Given the play is such an important part of the playwright’s canon, it seems appropriate to share the interview.

Just Between Ourselves: An Interview with Alan Ayckbourn by Simon Murgatroyd

Simon Murgatroyd: Have you any memories of Just Between Ourselves the first time round?

Alan Ayckbourn: Surprisingly, I’ve only directed Just Between Ourselves once and that was in Scarborough at the Library Theatre in 1976. When it went to London in 1977, Alan Strachan directed it with Colin Blakeley and Michael Gambon. Robin Herford then revived it at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in Scarborough in 1996 at the very end of our time at that building.

My original production was also the last production at the Library Theatre; I remember us all striking for the last time there and dismantling the car. Then we decided to do it again at the very end of Westwood and Robin directed it with Malcolm Hebden reprising his role of Neil from the Library Theatre alongside John Strickland as Dennis.

It’s a rather significant play for me as I got an Evening Standard Award for Best Play as opposed to Best Comedy. I remember Tom Stoppard saying at the time ‘Alan Ayckbourn’s written a better play than me, but mine is much, much funnier!’ as he had won Best Comedy. We swapped roles!

Malcom Hebden, Christopher Godwin & Polly Warren in the world premiere of Just Between Ourselves at the Library Theatre in 1976.
(© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

What are your thoughts on the play itself?

I think Just Between Ourselves is an interesting play as it led from the strand which started with Absent Friends; that strand of darkness re-emerged.

It’s quite an interesting play as it has a twin centre. There’s a central charter, which is undoubtedly Dennis and he dominates all the stage-time and most of the speeches as well – as the actor Christopher Godwin pointedly reminded me when we were first doing it! I think he’s actually got more lines than Hamlet! It’s a very big part. 

Undoubtedly though, the other central character is the rather less voluble but quite focally central, Vera. And the play is really about a woman’s lot. It’s quite an interesting play in that Vera is the traditional woman of the past – still prevalent at the time – in that her short working career spanned the period of leaving school with a view to getting married pretty quickly and then starting a career as a mother and housewife.

The working career was obviously a secondary consideration, so she got a job in a supermarket as she describes. That’s her lot – and that’s her tragedy as well because all her dreams and ambitions are lost. Her mother, who we never meet, had obviously groomed her to look after her man, have his children and so on. That was the regular option for women in this country at that point. But there was, I was aware, a growing section of female society that were looking beyond all that and looking to form careers of their own primarily and starting a family and husbands were secondary to that.

So everything was in a state of flux and that was represented in the play by Pam, who might be described as a very early feminist. Her husband is poor old Neil, who is a slightly wishy-washy, weak male totally dominated by Pam and who is completely lost. So his figure is slightly more tragic too, because he is also expected to fulfil the traditional male role of the period, but unfortunately he’s got hold of a woman who isn’t looking for that. So that’s his tragedy. He fails to satisfy Pam on any level – as the dark hints about their sex life are very clearly marked. 

There is a sort of underlying tragedy brought about by the social upheaval of the time, which reflects the country. I think it’s quite a little piece of interesting history.

Meanwhile there’s a third struggle going on – a more traditional one – between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. That is Marjorie and Vera and that is a situation brought about by the absence of Dennis mainly – it’s all his fault really. The women symbolically tussle over him but he’s not one to take sides.

Of course, the play is well known as ‘the one with the car’. What led to that decision?

The car is symbolically the point of freedom for Vera and then Pam, who will eventually own it – probably, if Dennis ever gets the garage door open – and she will drive away into the sunset.

It’s unusual aspect is to be set in a garage principally with a bit of garden. I really, as I said jokingly at the time, ran out of rooms in the house! So the garage is Dennis’s shed really – the equivalent of the male shed or man-cave – where he has symbolically retreated to, in rejection of his domestic contributions. 

Christopher Godwin as Dennis in the world premiere production.
(© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Dennis is one of your most fascinating characters, what are your thoughts on the character?

Regarding Dennis, he’s actually a very, very nice man. But the one flaw is, he’s an idiot! He doesn’t understand people. The reason he talks so much is because he never listens to anyone else. Whereas, Neil, I’ve never seen so many broken sentences in a man! Because Dennis not only pointedly ignores anything Neil says – he drills through it or just concentrates on what he’s doing to the exclusion of everything else.

Dennis is completely self-centred, but he is well-meaning – although he’s not a man one would want to live with for very long. He follows on from Colin in Absent Friends in that they are men you would cross the road to avoid meeting. Nonetheless I hope they are fun to play and fun to watch from a distance, to see the havoc they so inadvertently wreak on those around them.

Dennis is also obsessed with the zodiac and star-signs and so on, which is actually based on a producer I had who would never open plays unless the stars foretold it was right! He would always look at Patric Walker’s Diary – a famous horoscope provider of the time – and he would never contemplate opening a play if the stars did not foretell it was good omens nor would he make a journey unless the signs were right.

Everything Dennis says is wrong. Most things he says are wrong, but once you get onto that wave-length, you realise he’s not a man to rely on.

The company of the West End premiere of Just Between Ourselves
(© John Haynes)

Just Between Ourselves was written in 1976 and is a play of that period, but do you think these characters still exist today, that they’re still relevant?

I think we do still have characters like Dennis, Pam and Vera today. These people still exist but, hopefully, the context is different in that I don’t think that situation within the play would necessarily arise these days. We still have the likes of Dennis – men who think they know it all, so called Alpha males who have very little feminine side to them. And we still have women who are caught up in the back-wash of that and, indeed, women still seeking independence. 

The social situation has moved on though. I can always judge a play by the difficulty actors have absorbing the characters – particularly the actresses – because the thinking of the character is not natural to them because they are a couple of generations on. So they recognise that the imbalance or the antipathy or the friction which still exists between male and female – but it’s less obvious these days. When one looks back at the play originally during the original production during the 1970s, you would think this is a fairly normal situation and maybe the Pams were abnormal; now one hopes the Veras are less normal and common than the Pams and that Vera would undoubtedly have moved on a little bit. Her mother would not have have prepared her for the sort of life she is expecting in the play; indeed she would be a very retrograde parent today if she was! It’s an interesting question: I think the types are still there but the situations have changed slightly.

Nearly 45 years one, it is still regarded as one of your darkest and most affecting works. Would you agree with that?

It is a very downbeat play; the ending is particularly down. When we toured it back in the ‘70s, we went to Dartington and I remember at the end of the play, a couple of women sitting in the middle of the auditorium staring at the stage long after the cast had gone home. I went over and just said to them, ‘Are you alright? There isn’t any more you know’, and they said, ‘Oh no, we were just hoping there was because we hoped Vera would find a way out.’ I said, ‘No, I’m sorry, that’s the end of it.’

I remember one or two people trying to find endings that would give me the upbeat ending that I so obviously and badly needed! I said to them the characters just have to exist and I let them exist until the play finishes; to put my hand in and solve it all with one bold deus ex machina would be a terrible betrayal of them as characters. What happens to Vera is what happens to Vera. It is quite a downbeat ending but it is the truthful ending.

I think one or two people were quite surprised by it at the time, but a couple of the major critics did see where I had been heading for some time and that there were hints this play was on the cards. I had been set of zig-zagging towards it, little hints of it were there in The Norman Conquests and before that Absurd Person Singular – there isn’t a trace of it in Relatively Speaking or How The Other Half Loves – but I think there are indications that this play was about to arrive. So when it did, for me it was quite a mild sting. But I didn’t regret it , I didn’t try and alter it.

The mix of light and dark – which is such a crucial part of my writing – I hit pretty spot on in Just Between Ourselves and I’m quite pleased with that.

Looking back, how significant would you say Just Between Ourselves is in your writing canon?

Just Between Ourselves has some of the richest characters I had written to that date and it was a significant step in my gradual move away from situation to character-based comedy. It also marked a little course correction because I thought in Absent Friends, I had probably gone a little further than I realised in the fact that very little happens in Absent Friends; they just have tea and talk a lot. So Just Between Ourselves does a sort of course correction in that quite a lot happens in it.

I sometimes describe all my plays – uneven as they might be – as there are major ones that are stepping stones and there are small shallow puddles inbetween. This one is of those stepping stones. It’s a very significant play for me.

You can find out more about Just About Ourselves – including articles by the playwright and an in-depth history – at the Just Between Ourselves section of Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website here.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.

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