During his long career, Alan Ayckbourn has occasionally turned his hand to the work of other writers. The most famous example is, perhaps, his adaptation of R.B. Sheridan’s A Trip To Scarborough.
Alan has also adapted other plays with varying degrees of success including the Aldwych farce, Tons of Money, by Will Evans & Valentine. This adaptation premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in 1985 before Alan revived it at the National Theatre as the first of his four productions whilst Company Director with the company.
This article by the playwright looks at the history of the farce and the challenges in staging and directing the piece.
Tons of Money by Alan Ayckbourn
Tons Of Money was to be the first of the famous Aldwych farces, though it was initially seen in London (following a provincial tour) at the old Shaftesbury theatre (opposite the Palace) in Shaftesbury Avenue. Like many scripts before and since it had done the rounds of theatre managers and finished up through the letter box of Tom Walls and Leslie Henson (of Gaiety Theatre fame) who had started out in business together running summer shows on piers. Also in the best theatre tradition, the script was read initially not by the producers themselves but by their office boy, who found it funny enough to recommend to Walls who spotted in it a good basis for a farce.
It was an overnight success and received rave notices – there was even a leading article in the Daily Mail about it. Walls and Henson subsequently secured a lease on the then unfashionable Aldwych Theatre where it ran for 733 performances to be followed, in due course, by It Pays to Advertise and, finally, nine of Ben Travers’ farces.
On the opening night in 1922, a talented and unique team of farce players was established. Foremost amongst these was Ralph Lynn (Aubrey Allington) who had specialised with less success over the previous years in playing silly-ass, monocled Englishmen. But not until Tons of Money was he to be recognised as one of the greatest farce actors of our time. Together with Tom Walls and the rest of the Aldwych team, he was to delight audiences for over a decade.
Walls (Henery), for his part, besides producing and directing the show was also Chairman, Managing Director, head of every department, star actor (it was always Tom Walls and Ralph Lynn, never vice versa) and general overall dictator.
Other “regulars” were Mary Brough (Miss Mullet), later to play a wonderful series of dragons and assorted battle-axes for Ben Travers; the distinctive and diminutive bald-domed J. Robertson Hare (Chesterman); and Ena Mason (Simpson). The cast was also strengthened by the enchanting and extremely popular Yvonne Arnaud (Louise Allington) who was not though destined to become a full-time regular with the team partly, one suspects, because with the exception of the plum role in Tons of Money she was seldom to be offered anything again worthy of her talents. Actresses in general are rarely well served in farce – even to this day – being usually pushed to the sidelines, reduced to the role of awkward wife, menacing mother-in-law or haplessly well endowed damsel. Tons Of Money is quite exceptional in that the character of Louise is not only central but actually dictates, in most instances, the course of the action.
From all accounts, during rehearsal and in the course of the initial performances, Arnaud, Walls and Lynn took the promising plot and basic situation and made it very much their own. Although the authorship is credited to Messrs. Evans and Valentine it is hard to judge how much of the original dialogue remains intact or to what extent the original characters were modified to suit the idiosyncrasies of this individual trio.
In preparing this version for the National Theatre. I have attempted the delicate task of retaining the spirit whilst altering some (but by no means all) of the original letter of the surviving text. Most of the changes I have made are small. Verbal gags, for instance, that have lost their punch through imitation and repetition over the ensuing years, risqué jokes that would today pass unnoticed, or verbal niceties that could only have been delivered by their original perpetrators. Also some of Lynn’s uniquely personal sight gags, now reduced to a single cryptic, tantalising line of stage direction.
Ben Travers once described to me a piece of business created by Lynn in one of his plays (I forget which) whereby in Act I, whenever our hero felt threatened, he (Lynn) would rush upstage to a large staircase and flee halfway up it in sheer panic. In Act Two the scene changed to a garden. Somewhat later, plot developments again caused Lynn some alarm. He again ran to the backcloth to the spot where, earlier, the staircase had been and attempted to run up the nonexistent stairs. Collapse of audience. Such brilliant, individual conceits are, I feel, best laid to rest with their inventors.
You can find out more about Alan Ayckbourn’s adaptation of Tons of Money at his official website here.
Article by Alan Ayckbourn and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.