In Order of Non-Appearance

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s play Life of Riley at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.

The play is notable in that its titular character, Riley, never actually appears in the play although he is the integral to every character and their actions. He was just the latest of many memorable, if never seen, Ayckbourn characters.

To mark the anniversary, today’s blog reproduces Alan Ayckbourn’s programme note for the world premiere of the play in which he discusses his use of off-stage characters over the years.

In Order of Non-Appearance by Alan Ayckbourn

John Godber tells the story of a woman who expressed disappointment when she saw a production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot saying she knew Godot would never arrive because his name didn’t appear in the programme.

To avoid further disappointment I must own up that in Life of Riley, a prominent absentee from the published cast list is George Riley himself.

The use of offstage characters is a common enough device in most plays, either these days for economic reasons, or artistically merely to simplify matters.

Kim Wall & Liza Goddard in the world premiere of Life of Riley discussing the never seen Riley (© Tony Bartholomew /

As a standard weapon in a playwright’s armoury, I have used this device on countless occasions, usually in smaller roles. This is probably the first time for me that one has featured as a – if not the – principle protagonist.

Early on I learnt that for every character on stage one could also include one or even several that never appeared. And not merely to keep costs low which was and still is an important consideration.

But over and above mere cost, off-stage characters serve to extend the limited onstage world, lending the illusion of existence beyond the visible community populating the tiny stage area.

A seven from the world premiere of Absurd Person Singular – Dick & Lottie lurking nearby unseen… (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

As characters, they can also by dint of their invisibility and sheer non-presence take on roles which the principle onstage protagonists cannot. I discovered this early on in Absurd Person Singular (1972) which though on paper a six-hander is essentially, through the inclusion of Dick and Lottie Potter, an eight-hander. This pair of unseen ebullient teachers serve to create the nightmarish offstage Christmas parties to which, we, the audience from the safety of the kitchen, are grateful not to have been invited.

Indeed, so successful did Dick and Lottie become, they threatened in some productions to run away with the show. From hints and clues provided by the onstage characters, the audience delighted in filling in the gaps themselves, creating their own images of this hearty couple whose booming merriment can be heard every time the kitchen door is opened.

Later in The Norman Conquests (1973) the offstage unseen mother lies in her bed manipulating her luckless offspring. We count ourselves lucky she never makes it downstairs.

A scene from the world premiere of The Norman Conquests – ‘mother’ unseen in the bedroom above (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

These offstage worlds can occasionally take on lives of their own. A few years later in Bedroom Farce (1975), the onstage newly weds Malcolm and Kate give a disastrous housewarming party which ends in pandemonium. It was only thirty years later when I was directing a revival of Relatively Speaking dating from 1965 that I discovered the young lovers Ginny and Greg in that play anachronistically recall first meeting at the same Malcolm and Kate’s party. Spooky!

In one instance, an offstage character so took my fancy that I gave him a major onstage appearance in a later play. Thus the unfortunate and awkward offstage Dr Bill Windsor from Intimate Exchanges (1982) was later to return in a major onstage role in Woman in Mind, awkward as ever and still unable to open his damaged doctor’s case three years later.

By my reckoning, I have at this point created over 400 onstage named characters and probably (though I haven’t even begun to count them) at least the same quantity of those other characters, referred to but never putting in an appearance. The unseen hoard.

Barry McCarthy as Bill Windsor in the world premiere of Woman In Mind – a character first mentioned, but never seen, in Intimate Exchanges (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Please welcome, then, the latest recruit to their number, George Riley. Since you will never to meet him in person, you are at liberty to make of him what you will. Just don’t believe everything people say of him, though.

Oh, I nearly forgot, keep a special ear open for talk of Basil and Dorothy Bender, who are almost certainly going to put in appearance in a future play. If they haven’t already done so …

Alan Ayckbourn (2010)

You can find out more about Life of Riley at Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website here.

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

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