Way Upstream: A Re-Evaluation

“It is for me quite a departure. Whatever else I’m being accused of, I don’t think I’m trotting out the same old play again.” Alan Ayckbourn (1981)

Way Upstream. Still most well-known known, almost forty years on, as the play that flooded the National Theatre.

Yet there is so much more to Way Upstream than one notorious production. It is a play deserving of attention not for the headlines it generated nor even for its technical ingenuity and challenges, but rather as a bold new direction for the playwright which would also act as a significant precursor of his future direction as a writer.

Alan Ayckbourn is notoriously difficult to pin down as to the inspiration behind specific plays – and what stories he does tell tend to alter and shift over time – but Way Upstream is so different to anything which precedes it, that it is interesting to explore what led to this change of direction.

Alan Ayckbourn with the Hadforth Bounty for the world premiere of Way Upstream at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Way Upstream marks the foundations of the Ayckbourn’s writing reflecting and reacting to the wider world. It is a play which reflects his view of the country at that time. Which wasn’t pretty.

“I wrote the play at a time when this country seemed to be in a constant state of unrest. Both political parties held extremist positions while the great majority of us stood irresolutely in the middle, reluctant to take a stand. I was also wondering then about the generation before mine who went off to war and who were tested. You often ask yourself if you’d be capable of showing the required courage in such a situation – ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”

Head back to 1981 when the play was written and it’s difficult not to see a febrile country in flux. It is the year in which the country was engulfed by riots triggered by race and social deprivation typified by Brixton, Toxteth and Moss Side. The UK entered a major recession with historically high unemployment with 1 in 9 people out of work. It is the time of the IRA hunger strikes, the trial of the Yorkshire Ripper and the founding of the Social Democratic Party – which, for a time, brought three-party politics to the UK.

As Ayckbourn himself noted: “I’m grossly depressed by the world and all that happens in it most of the time.” Naturally, he chose to address this within his writing.

The result was a play set on a boat cruising upriver away from the ‘safe’ suburban world of Pendon – the fictional town where the playwright has set a number of his plays. Way Upstream is frequently described as a metaphorical work, but there’s something very literal about the playwright’s intentions. This is his first play to be set outside the suburban environment and it literally features a boat setting off on a journey away from Pendon. Ayckbourn is clearing signalling his intent to move into new environments.

But these new environments are not necessarily just the world at large. For, as anyone familiar with the play will know, the journey of the Hadforth Bounty slowly ventures into more allegorical waters as it journeys up the River Orb towards Armageddon Bridge.

Emma (Lavinia Bertram) walks the plank in the world premiere of Way Upstream at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

In fact, Ayckbourn views the play favourably and as a distinct step into new realms; he makes the case that the turn towards fantasy, which becomes an increasingly common element in his writing from Henceforward.. (1987) onwards, can instead be traced back to Way Upstream.

“It’s quite a weird play, quite allegorical, quite surreal, and I was quite pleased with what I did at the time, because it was, as I say, an area I hadn’t entered before, an area where I left realism gradually behind, like the boat as it went up river; its world becomes less and less real and more and more grotesque, I think.”

As the playwright later emphasised: “It goes into realms I haven’t explored before and is quite chilling in some ways.”

Way Upstream is the playwright’s first ‘state of the nation’ play, but he is not a playwright who has ever been interested in writing a ‘political’ play or a documentary work. He is looking to comment on the nature of what he sees around him and, like many writers before him, he turns to the allegorical and the fantasical; intriguingly something which had always fascinated the playwright even as a youngster. In later plays, he will turn to the genre of speculative fiction / science fiction to reflect the world today but at a step removed. Look at Henceforward… in the light of this year’s events and its becomes alarmingly prescient. Its protagonist, Jerome, becomes the world’s foremost self-isolater – locked away in his Northern flat from the dangers lurking in the world outside and creatively impotent as a result of his lack of exposure to the rest of humanity, more specifically his family.

The use of allegory within Way Upstream allows the playwright to tackle his perception of extremism and unrest in the country but without needing to tie it to specific situations, people or events. At its heart, Way Upstream is a morality tale about how an average couple – Alistair and Emma – deal with an extreme threat to their lives and well-being. By rooting it in a normal, identifiable experience of a river-cruise holiday, the playwright brings the situation closer to us, the audience. We identify with Alistair and Emma and wonder how we would cope with the situation while also aware the playwright is dealing with larger issues about the nature of contemporary society.

“I loved the allegorical stories they – the great authors when I was growing up, Bardbury, Asimov, Heinlein – told, when they were using science-fiction as an allegory of, if we continue thus, then we will finish up here. This particular realm of science-fantasy wrote about the present day from a future stand-point, which of course is a very strong part of science-fiction. Reflecting the present day or extending the trends of the present day to its logical conclusion.”

Matthew Cottle and Sakia Butler as Alistair and Emma in Alan Ayckbourn’s 2003 revival of Way Upstream at the Stephen Joseph Theatre (© Tony Bartholomew www.bartpics.co.uk)

This allegory, it has also been argued, extends to Way Upstream being a journey back to the Biblical paradise of Eden with Alistair and Emma as a modern Adam and Eve. They begin the play practically separate – a lost, disillusioned and unhappy couple. As the boat moves upstream, they are tempted and tested only to rediscover the love they had lost and the strength that discovery brings them allowing them to overcome adversity and to pass beyond Armageddon Bridge to ‘the absolute limit of navigation’; a beautiful island paradise of birdsong and sunshine where they strip naked and dive into the waters, a return to innocence and love.

Which is not to overstate the case, as the playwright himself admits, the play is the first of his to step into allegory but that shouldn’t necessarily be something audiences realise.

“It is an allegorical play. That’s more apparent when you read it, than when you see it onstage. At least I hope it is. There’s nothing worse than sitting through a lot of symbols floating about being meaningful. I think any so-called message should only occur to people afterwards – and then only if they care to think about it. At the time, it’s a comedy that turns into an adventure story and finally a fantasy-adventure story.”

The decision to move into this allegorical, almost fantasy territory, also became a necessity due to another significant driver of the play. The need to tackle a theme Ayckbourn had never previously considered within his writing. “One had this need to write about good and evil, much more clearly than normal,” said the playwright in 1983. Way Upstream is the first of several Ayckbourn plays to address the nature of good and evil; indeed this is the first play where a resolutely evil character is portrayed.

“It’s a fable about evil. The two outside characters are as evil as anyone has ever written: what makes it more fabulous is there is no attempt to justify their reaction. They are simply filled with a sense of what I think the world is full of at the moment, a nebulous hate.”

The two characters are Vince and Fleur, modern-day pirates who infiltrate and take over the cruiser with dark intentions for all aboard. They are Ayckbourn’s earliest explorations into the nature of evil – and also begin a trend that evil is generally signified in an Ayckbourn play by a character whose name begins with V: Vince, Vic (Man of the Moment), Val (Sugar Daddies) and, not least the devil itself, Valda (A Word From Our Sponsor). Vince and Fleur undoubtedly represent the extremists Ayckbourn perceives in the country, although one must be quick to point out they are not identified by their politics – Right or Left – most likely existing in that area where it’s impossible to differentiate between the two. They are apparently born out of entirely malicious motives and Ayckbourn at one point described them as ‘water spirits’ who arise from nowhere and then vanish back into the river to plague others who come their way.

“Vince and Fleur are two prongs of the same fork representing, for me, the worst excesses of political ideology. Vince is the most evil man I’ve ever written.”

So what we have is the first Ayckbourn play set outside suburbia, the first notable play which delves into fantasy and – arguably – the first of Ayckbourn’s morality plays. What’s interesting here is credit for originating all these themes is frequently attributed to plays later in the canon from the late ’80s onwards: Man of the Moment (1988) as the first play to move outside of suburban England and to confront the nature of good and evil, Henceforward… (1987) as the first fantasy play, A Small Family Business (1987) for its insights into the morality of the nation. Whilst Way Upstream is, arguably, not quite in the same league as any one of these genuine classics of the playwright’s canon, it sets the stage for them – it provides a stepping stone onto more detailed explorations of these subjects.

Stephen Beckett as Vince during the rainstorm in Alan Ayckbourn’s 2003 revival (© Tony Bartholomew www.bartpics.co.uk)

All of which makes Way Upstream far more interesting than what is most commonly associated with the play. Of course, there is a fascinating story about how the staging at the National Theatre in 1982 led to the water-tank splitting and spilling thousands of gallons into the bowels of the building (and for an extremely entertaining retelling, I can highly recommend Daniel Rosenthal’s account in his work The National Theatre). But it hardly defines the play and most tellings of that story don’t actually take it to its conclusion with a production that achieved more than the playwright had ever imagined.

“This [the National Theatre’s production of Way Upstream] was beset with every technical difficulty under the sun. The play gained an unfortunate notoriety for being overambitious and unstageable; all untrue. Once the production was running, it was immensely successful and audiences reacted with a marvellous spontaneity – applauding and cheering and following the action often like a Saturday morning children’s cinema audience.”

Again, the play’s achievements have also often been obscured by the sheer technical innovation and challenge of the play: it is inarguably a coup de théâtre when experiencing Way Upstream for the first time to walk into the auditorium and see a body of water in place of a stage with a boat ‘floating’ on it. Once the boat begins moving and we also experience rain-storms and fist-fights waist-deep in water, it hard not to argue this is one of Alan Ayckbourn’s most intensely theatrical experiences. This being a point lost on the well-meaning but misjudged BBC film which instantly lost the work’s inherent theatricality by filming it realistically on a real boat and river, which seems rather pedestrian in comparison to seeing such things on stage. But to become obsessed with the theatricality and innovation does the play itself little justice. This is commonplace in Ayckbourn’s plays, we accept that these often ground-breaking plays – The Norman Conquests, House & Garden, Intimate Exchanges and so on – are more than just ingenious structures and technical challenges but the engines which drive the plays and their ideas.

The contemporary accusations of the playwright’s political leanings from certain critics at the time – most notably Robin Thornber’s assertion that, “philosophically it’s a plug for the soggy centrism of the Social Democratic Party. It’s the first time Ayckbourn has been so politically explicit” whilst much quoted also holds very little water, especially given Alan’s resolute apolitical approach to his writing – and to life in general – and which he himself pushed firmly back on: “People started saying it was about the SDP, which I found very depressing. I hope one’s into a bigger league than that.”

Way Upstream is far more than all of this – as more recent revivals have demonstrated – it is a play which took great risks, technically and dramatically, for the playwright and marked a true transition in his writing career. True, he would return to the familiarity of suburban dysfunction but frequently with more expansive elements than ever before.

Way Upstream lays the groundwork for his increasingly confident forays into fantasy and speculative fiction – amongst which we generally find the playwright’s most autobiographical works – as well as the larger themes which typify the writing of the late ’80s as he pricks at the nature of contemporary Britain.

The critic and writer Michael Billington once astutely wrote of this period of Alan’s work: “Ayckbourn began the decade with Way Upstream and a group of characters drifting aboard a cabin-cruiser towards Armageddon Bridge. He went on to tackle sanctioned greed in A Small Family Business, social disintegration and the technological nightmare in Henceforward…, the cult of the criminal in Man Of The Moment. Ayckbourn’s genius is to make us laugh while exposing the moral bankruptcy of the age.”

Whether you agree with that or not, perhaps Way Upstream needs re-evaluating if only because the playwright himself views it as significant and that it marked a distinct shift in his writing. Whatever the case, Way Upstream is a play which is much more significant than it has generally been given credit for.

“It was a play of mine that I felt changed the direction of my writing quite sharply. I think the changes are always much bigger in your own mind – probably – than they are in the minds of the public, but I felt that I moved quite a long way along a different route when I wrote this play.”

Article by Simon Murgatroyd, August 2020

Simon Murgatroyd is Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist and the creator of the playwright’s official website www.alanayckbourn.net. He is also the author of the book Unseen Ayckbourn.

You can find out more about Way Upstream at Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website by clicking here.

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

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