On 16 March 1977, Alan Ayckbourn’s play Bedroom Farce opened at the National Theatre in London and would quickly cement itself and one of Alan Ayckbourn’s most successful and popular plays.
It is, to this day, one of his most revived and performed works and regarded as one of his classic comic works. But has this led to the play being undervalued? Seen as no more than one of Ayckbourn’s lighter works – such as Relatively Speaking – that doesn’t necessarily deserve more in-depth exploration or discussion?
This article argues why Bedroom Farce is not only a successful play but a highly significant one in the Ayckbourn play canon and one which had a more profound impact than might is generally thought.
Bedroom Farce: The Aftermath by Simon Murgatroyd
Bedroom Farce has always been a difficult play to place in the broader context of Alan Ayckbourn’s career and has frequently been dismissed as a result. Certainly it does not sit easily with the plays around it, but to dismiss it would be to do the play a disservice.
Bedroom Farce appears a light and entertaining comedy written at a time when Alan’s plays were generally moving into darker territory; in fact, Bedroom Farce too has a serious core. It is preceded by Absent Friends and followed by Just Between Ourselves, Ten Times Table and Joking Apart. They are strange bed-fellows as these plays epitomise one of the darker periods of Alan’s writing career. Yet beneath the laughs, Bedroom Farce is not so far removed from these other plays and Alan Ayckbourn’s most common themes.
Practically all the relationships in Bedroom Farce are in ill-health and the intrusion of Trevor and Susannah into them all but pushes them to breaking point. In Trevor, we have one of Alan’s hugely destructive men laying waste to the people and relationships around him with not a care for anyone other than himself. He is an extreme example of Leonard from Time And Time Again, Norman in The Norman Conquests and Dennis in Just Between Ourselves; except these other characters tend to have at least a couple of redeeming qualities!
In Susannah, we also have an archetypal Ayckbourn female pushed to the limit and on the verge of breakdown. She is not so far removed from Diana in Absent Friends, Sarah in The Norman Conquests, Vera in Just Between Ourselves and any number of other Ayckbourn women pushed to the edge. Susannah is more broadly comic but one cannot imagine her life – or the lives of those she interacts with – will ever be easy.
There is a lighter touch in Bedroom Farce and it is more obviously comic, but its theme and subject sit comfortably within Alan’s writing of this period. This argument and the depth of the play is succinctly summarised by the critic Michael Billington in his book on Alan Ayckbourn:
The success of Bedroom Farce was enormous both critically and commercially. It is arguably the last of Alan Ayckbourn’s indisputable London successes until 1984, when A Chorus Of Disapproval began another period of notable London success. Which is not to say Alan is not successful in the years between this period, but as his plays took a darker turn so the London productions were less commercially successful; they were still popular but in the eyes of the producers not to the same level as Alan’s plays from the preceding decade – in other words, they didn’t make the producers as much money as they hoped.
“For what is the play actually about? What Schopenhauer called ‘the tyranny of the weak’, the capacity of a neurotic married couple not only to export their problems but also to exacerbate the crises in other people’s marriages. It also deals with parental destructiveness, marital violence, failures of communication, male vanity. Where a lesser dramatist might set up these themes and then find an action that illustrated them, Ayckbourn sets up a brilliantly comic device, lets his imagination take over and allows the ideas to spring out of exact observation of human behaviour. He reminds us all the time that a play is an artefact, a toy, a construct; but that, at its best, it can also illuminate the human condition. Bedroom Farce is also one of those rare plays in which form and content achieve a blissfully happy marriage (about the only one on view).”
Bedroom Farce is also notable for forging Alan’s strong relationship with Peter Hall and the National Theatre. There may well have been arguments about whether Bedroom Farce should have been produced at the National, but at a time when the National Theatre’s back was against the wall, it provided a very welcome hit and there is no doubt the financial success of the play subsidised important but less financially successful productions at the venue. The success of Bedroom Farce would lead to a run of Ayckbourn plays at the National Theatre during Hall’s tenure which included Sisterly Feelings (1980), Way Upstream (1981), A Chorus Of Disapproval (1984) culminating in A Small Family Business (1987) when Alan was running his own company at the National Theatre.
Most significantly, Bedroom Farce kick-started Alan’s London directing career. At this time, Alan’s regular West End producer Michael Codron was not willing to let Alan take on the direction of the London productions. Peter Hall’s confidence in Alan’s abilities as a director and the subsequent success of Bedroom Farce set a precedent and arguably opened the door for Codron to allow Alan to direct the London premieres of his plays. This led to Alan directing practically all of the London premieres of his plays since. It’s hard not to imagine that Peter Hall’s subsequent decision to ask Alan to run his own company at the National in the 1980s was not tied to the fact that Alan, by that point, had a successful directing career in London as well as Scarborough.
Michael Billington’s earlier point about Alan’s technical mastery of the stage is also worth considering. There is a distinct feeling that after the tour-de-force of The Norman Conquests, Alan began to draw in his work. In the immediate aftermath of the trilogy, there is less of a bravura feel to the staging, the plays concentrate on the characters and are frequently based in one set with none of the technical ’gimmicks’ which Alan had become associated with.
Absent Friends, Confusions, Just Between Ourselves, Ten Times Table and Joking Apart are all ensemble character pieces. In the midst of this comes Bedroom Farce, commissioned for a space – the Lyttelton at the National Theatre – unfamiliar to Alan. What he creates is a play that both demonstrates how well he can cope with the vast spaces of the National Theatre, but also a play which illustrates his consummate skill as a director and his ability to offer something new to audiences. Bedroom Farce reminds us of Alan’s skill as a director and technician as well as playwright and demonstrates how he is comfortable moving from the, for want of a better description, chamber pieces to the more technically challenging and frequently larger scale plays.
Of course, one of the most important achievements of Bedroom Farce is its extraordinary success. Not only did it break records at the National Theatre, but it quickly became one of the most popular and frequently performed of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays. Its popularity remains undiminished more than 40 years after it was created. Since 2000, the play has been revived by Alan Ayckbourn at the Stephen Joseph Theatre before touring the UK, it has been revived in the West End, had a major UK tour directed by Robin Herford and in 2009 was revived by Sir Peter Hall at the Rose Theatre, Kingston, as a highly acclaimed production which transferred to the West End. All this in addition to the many other professional and amateur productions of the play which take place on international stages every year.
All of which supports how significant Bedroom Farce is within the Ayckbourn canon and how it is so much than the comedy with the beds!
You can find out more about Bedroom Farce 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.