It is almost a tale of two cities when it comes to the success of Alan Ayckbourn and his plays in New York and London.
Inarguably, Alan Ayckbourn had phenomenal success in London and the West End between 1967 and 2001 whilst barely making a ripple in New York. Yet since 2005, the playwright has been only too happy to take regular trips to New York to stage his works to acclaim whilst he has only directed twice in the West End since 2001.
Whilst much has been written of Alan’s experiences in the West End, little has been recorded of his plays on and off Broadway. Here we take a whistle stop journey through Alan’s New York experiences and how he came to favour it over the West End.
It has always been an interesting disparity in Alan Ayckbourn’s life that he never quite achieved the success in New York he had in London until he essentially abandoned the West End. In context, the heyday of Alan’s association with the West End is between the openings of Relatively Speaking in 1967 and the ill-fated trilogy Damsels In Distress in 2001.
During that period, Alan had 38 different plays performed in either the West End or the National Theatre. They accrued 18 major awards (not including awards for actors) and during the majority of this time he had between two and five plays running each year in the West End. What he achieved was astonishing.
In New York, he would not truly begin to make a mark until 2005. Prior to that, it could be said, Alan had a rather patchy relationship with the city.
The first attempt to transfer any Ayckbourn play to New York dates back to 1967, the year Relatively Speaking opened to extraordinary success in London. Such success drew the attention of producers across the Atlantic and long and hard negotiations were initiated to bring the play to Broadway.
The already difficult process was made even harder by an insistence that the 28 year old playwright’s play needed to be Americanised for it to be a success by a native writer. That this approach was doomed from the start can only be highlighted by the famed example of the line “I can’t say I’m taken with this marmalade” becoming “This marmalade is a freak-out.”
At which point, one suspects Alan’s interest in seeing the play on Broadway dipped significantly. Despite the ‘best’ intentions of the producers Relatively Speaking never made it to Broadway and its first professional New York production actually came in 1984.
The first Ayckbourn play to reach the Great White Way was How The Other Half Loves in 1971, although this was How The Other Half Loves seen through the lens of Robert Morley. He had played Frank Foster in the London production of the play and had dominated what was intended as an ensemble comedy. The American producers, having seen Morley in London, were thus convinced it was a star vehicle and promptly brought in Phil Silvers to revive his flagging post Sergeant Bilko career.
It was not – nor ever has been – a star vehicle and that it survived how Morley mistreated the play is a testament to the actor’s sheer weight of personality and popularity. Silvers, whilst undoubtedly a talented actor, did not possess the same confidence nor force of personality.
Alan has fond stories of working with Silvers, but – in entirely different ways – he was as ill-suited to the role as Morley and his abject lack of confidence in his own abilities did the play few favours during its run in 1971, which ended up losing the producers $170,000.
It was followed in 1974 by easily the most successful and popular transfer of an Ayckbourn play to New York for the next 35 years. For Absurd Person Singular, the wise decision of hiring the hit London production’s director, Eric Thompson, was made. He assembled a strong American cast and the play was a hit with the critics and audiences, running for 592 performances, making it the most successful comedy on Broadway by a British playwright since Noël’s Coward’s Blithe Spirit in 1941.
That is not to say there weren’t problems as the producers were bizarrely convinced the play’s acts were in the wrong order! Apparently unable to grasp the concept of the play’s dying fall and that the funniest scene was the second, they presented Alan with statistics showing how there were more laughs (themselves divided into categories of laughter) in the second act which meant it should be transposed to the final act.
Alan knew there were more laughs in the second act, had intended it to be so, but the producers were still not happy and notified Alan they had the rights to alter the play as they saw fit and the acts would change. At which point, Alan’s formidable literary agent Margaret Ramsay made it clear that despite what they might believe, the producers had absolutely no rights to alter the structure of the play. There was no argument (and if there had it would not have been pretty). The play was produced as intended and reaped the dividends.
The success of Absurd Person Singular led to a quick take-up of The Norman Conquests in 1975 again with Eric Thompson assuming the director’s chair as he had for London. Unfortunately the cast was not perceived to have been quite so good this time round and the trilogy struggled to have the same impact. It did well enough but was largely shrugged off by the critics; in stark contrast to how it was received upon its revival during 2009.
If nothing else, the trilogy achieved the distinction of making Alan the first playwright to have four plays performing simultaneously on Broadway (alongside Absurd Person Singular). For one day in January 1976, 45th Street was renamed Ayckbourn Alley in honour of this achievement and the trilogy would also go on to win the Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience.
It would be 1979 before another Ayckbourn play found its way onto Broadway when the National Theatre toured Bedroom Farce to the USA. This play marked the first time Alan would direct a play in the West End and, consequently, the first play he directed in New York. The play had arrived in America on the back of phenomenal success in London and expectations were high. The reviews were generally excellent. Box office less so. No-one could quite explain it but Alan felt the play did not satisfy the expectations of what an American audience expected the National Theatre to present. It was nominated for Tonys for Best Direction and Best Play though marking the first – and last – such nominations for an Ayckbourn play for 28 years.
More than a decade later, British director Alan Strachan – who would become one of the pre-eminent directors of Alan’s plays – premiered Taking Steps in the Circle In The Square theatre in 1991. It was a good production of the play and arguably the first time the New York production of a play was superior to the West End production. In Alan Ayckbourn’s view, Alan Strachan undoubtedly did the play better justice than the flawed 1980 London production which the playwright famously has issues with and, subsequently would not let anyone but himself direct the West End premiere of his work.
The following year Manhattan Theatre Club presented A Small Family Business on Broadway, one of the rare instances of a professional production tackling this challenging take on British society. The Manhattan Theatre Club was also responsible for the New York Off Broadway premieres of several other Ayckbourn plays, most notably Woman In Mind. It featured Stockard Channing as Susan and met with considerable acclaim including seeing her win the Drama Desk Best Actress Award..
The Manhattan Theatre Club was also responsible for the New York premieres (all Off Broadway) of: Absent Friends in 1991, which featured Brenda Blethyn and a young Gillian Anderson who went straight from the play into the hit television show The X Files and international fame; Comic Potential in 2000, in which saw Janie Dee reprised her Olivier award-winning role as the android Jacie Triplethree to great acclaim; and finally the duology House & Garden in 2002.
2001 saw Alan himself return to Broadway to direct his and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical By Jeeves at the Helen Hayes Theatre. The play opened in the aftermath of 9/11 and nearly did not go ahead when many of the investors pulled out as a result of the uncertainty surrounding the events of that tragic day. Alternative investment was found and the musical opened on 16 October with Martin Jarvis playing the role of Jeeves and John Scherer as Bertie Wooster. It ran until 30 December and despite not achieving the hoped-for success, it was well-received during a difficult period for the New York theatre-scene. This production was also adapted for television with Alan stepping behind the camera as director for the first time.
As By Jeeves came to a close on Broadway, so Alan hit his nadir in the West End. Despite all his success, he had never entirely been comfortable with how the West End treated his work and this came to a dramatic conclusion when the playwright – on holiday in France – discovered his Damsels in Distress trilogy has essentially been reduced to one play without his knowledge. In the aftermath, he severed his ties with the West End and wouldn’t allow his new work to be transfer to London.
But his new work unexpectedly found a home to transfer to and one where he became only too happy to direct and repeat the experience.
During 2005, his home theatre in Scarborough – the Stephen Joseph Theatre – decided to take the potentially risky move of taking part in the Brits Off Broadway festival organised by 59E59 Theatres. This was a financial risk for the SJT for, had it not gone well, the theatre would have made substantial losses. It would mark the first time the company had performed in New York and it was with a play that was deemed uncharacteristic of the playwright and which had not proved to be popular with the majority of British critics.
Private Fears In Public Places was directed by Alan and featured his ensemble company, most of whom had appeared in the premiere of the play in Scarborough the previous year. It was an unknown quantity and this was reflected in advance tickets sales which were steady if unspectacular.
And then the reviews began rolling in.
They were led by Charles Isherwood’s extraordinary tribute to the play in the New York Times which heaped praise on the production and described the company as the best in New York. More glowing reviews followed and tickets quickly sold out; it was even reported to be the hottest ticket in town! More than 15 years on, the playwright still thinks of it as one of the most memorable experiences of his long and varied career.
Alan’s profile rose immediately and there were even plans for him to return to New York to re-direct the play with an American company. Although casting was completed, a decision to move the production from an intimate Off Broadway venue to a larger, less appropriate venue led to the production being vetoed. In all likelihood the best decision as Alan was never going to receive any better notices than those he had received during the festival.
Despite the success of Private Fears In Public Places, the next Ayckbourn production did not go so well. Several months later – and perhaps with unfortunate timing – Absurd Person Singular was revived by Manhattan Theater Club on Broadway. The critics came in from two fronts; those that had fond memories of the original Broadway production and those who had seen Private Fears in Public Places and appreciated just how an Ayckbourn play should be directed and acted. Even the very best production would have struggled to step out of either of those shadows.
What this made clear in Alan’s mind was his plays could work in New York if they stayed true to his original intentions: an ensemble company in a small theatre directed by himself – practically replicating the Scarborough experience but in New York.
This was affirmed when two years later, the SJT transferred its epic production of Intimate Exhanges to the Brits Off Broadway festival. It seems madness in retrospect that a play with 16 different permutations featuring two actors performing 10 different roles with – in total – more than thirty hours of dialogue should transfer across the Atlantic. But the audiences and critics embraced it again and the production received extremely good reviews (with the two actors receiving high praise) and it broke box office records at the 59E59 Theaters. Alan’s reputation was at a high in New York and soon to be buttressed even further.
In 2009, The Norman Conquests transferred to Broadway following its critically and commercial success at The Old Vic theatre. Directed by Matthew Warchus, the play arrived at the Circle In The Square theatre on a wave of anticipation on 25 April for a limited run.
By the time, it closed on 26 July it had amassed the largest amount of awards any single production of an Ayckbourn play has ever received. Amongst these was the first Tony Award for an Ayckbourn play for Best Revival. Its success and interest in the trilogy generated large amounts of media attention for both the trilogy and Alan, although as several critics pointed out, New York was rather late to the party as regional American theatres had been producing strong productions of Alan’s plays for a number of years and already knew the quality of Alan’s work.
It is perhaps interesting to consider the success of such wildly different plays from an acknowledged classic of The Norman Conquests to the wildly different and more sober Private Fears in Public Places. Alan felt that, aside from the quality of the productions, it was perhaps because New York audiences did not have the baggage of London audiences. That because he was largely an unknown quantity in New York, there were no preconceptions of his work and each production was taken at face value.
This had long been an issue with the West End where he had long been labelled as a farceur; even today the term is lazily used to describe his plays despite the fact the playwright contends he has only written one farce in 84 plays and none of his plays typically labelled as such could – objectively and if produced as intended – be remotely considered as farcical.
Back in New York, a pattern was established with Alan and the SJT returning to the 59E59 every couple of years. In 2009, his latest work My Wonderful Day opened in Scarborough and two weeks after the end of its run, it transferred to New York. The first time Alan had transferred a new play straight to New York. Fronted by an extraordinary performance by 28 year old Ayseha Antoine as an utterly convincing nine-year old girl, the play drew plaudits, award nominations and stellar box office business.
Subsequently, Alan and the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s relationships with the 59E59 has led to a renaissance in the perception of Alan’s work in New York. Whereas prior to 2005, he had varying degrees of success, there was little that he could claim as truly successful outside of the 1974 production of Absurd Person Singular.
His productions at Brits Off Broadway – which have continued to be successful with Neighbourhood Watch (2011), Arrivals & Departures (2014), Time Of My Life (2014), Hero’s Welcome (2016), Confusions (2016) and A Brief History of Women (2018) – have seen the playwright able to see his work received successfully on his own terms and he takes great pleasure from the productions and their reception.
While the current pandemic has quashed any immediate hopes of returning to New York, it surely can only be a matter of time before Alan Ayckbourn renews his relationship with the city from which he has gained so much satisfaction and achievement in the past two decades.
Simon Murgatroyd is Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist and creator and administrator of the playwright’s official website www.alanayckbourn.net.
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