On 29 March 1967, Alan Ayckbourn’s play Relatively Speaking opened in the West End. It would transform his fortunes and career overnight.
The critical reception to and commercial success of the production launched Alan into the theatre limelight – although he had been writing for eight years by this point – and had enormous repercussions for Alan’s career in both the short and long term.
To mark the anniversary of Relatively Speaking opening at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London, the blog today looks at just how far reaching the success of the West End production of Relatively Speaking was.
Relatively Speaking: The Aftermath by Simon Murgatroyd
When Relatively Speaking opened in the West End on 29 March 1967, no-one – not least its author Alan Ayckbourn – had any notion of the effect it would have.
After all, Alan’s previous West End transfer – his first – had been a complete disaster. Mr Whatnot had opened at the the New Arts on 6 August 1964 with comedian Ronnie Barker in the cast and had subsequently closed on 22 August 1964 on the back of some of the worst reviews Alan would ever receive in his long theatrical career.
Alan had no expectation of success with Relatively Speaking and, anyway, was unsure of whether his future even lay in the theatre having taking a job as a Radio Producer for the BBC two years earlier.
The immediate and very public success of Relatively Speaking propelled Alan into the spotlight as the next playwright to watch and would have enormous repercussions.
It even had an effect within the West End theatre world. Relatively Speaking is ostensibly a light comedy with no pretensions to be anything else. It bucked the then current trend for heavyweight playwrights and realism, demonstrating that while it may be apparently unfashionable, there was still an audience eager for well-written and produced comedies. As many critics noted, Relatively Speaking was head and shoulders above recent comedy fare in the quality of the script and production, which would lead to demand for more plays of this type from Alan.
The next of his plays to open in London was How The Other Half Loves in 1970; an interim play, The Sparrow, disappeared without trace following its first and only production at the Library Theatre, Scarborough. How The Other Half Loves was, if anything, even more of a success than Relatively Speaking. However, Alan and biographers and critics such as Michael Billington have no doubt that – in some respects – the success of these two plays set Alan’s career as a writer back.
Both plays are essentially comedies which border on farce – Relatively Speaking is, strictly speaking, a high comedy and How The Other Half Loves nearer to farce; the West End production of the latter plainly presented it as farce to such an extent that it’s debatable how close it actually hewed to both the original script and author’s intentions. As a result, Alan was stuck with the label of farceur for many years to come despite the fact that as early as 1971, he was no longer writing the light comedies he was now associated with.
Although Alan was phenomenally popular and often received glowing reviews over the coming years, he would not be widely viewed as a ‘serious’ playwright until the late 1980s when plays such as A Small Family Business, Woman In Mind and Man of the Moment could in no way be described as farcical or light comedies and it became increasingly untenable to describe the playwright as a farceur.
On the other hand, the success of these first two plays inarguably began an extraordinary run for Alan Ayckbourn, making him one of the most successful British playwrights of the 20th century.
Between 1965 and 1989, Alan would write 32 plays, 28 of which would go on to London productions in either the West End or the National Theatre. As of 2021, he has written 85 plays with 39 having gone on to open in London. A remarkable achievement by anyone’s standards.
An unexpected consequence, but possibly the most far-reaching, is the effect this success had with regard to Alan’s adopted home town of Scarborough. In 1967, Alan’s mentor Stephen Joseph died and the Library Theatre, which he had founded in 1955, was left without an obvious future nor direction. At the same time, Alan became the company’s first appreciable success. It is hard to imagine this was not an attraction to Scarborough Theatre Trust looking for a way to not only survive, but move forward whilst preserving Stephen’s legacy.
Alan had made a commitment to write and direct new plays for Scarborough, which meant the theatre had both a natural successor and a public figurehead supportive of the cause. Not only that, but the theatre began to benefit financially from his success earning royalties from his mounting West End successes.
In such circumstances, Alan’s appointment as Artistic Director of the Library Theatre in 1972 seems inevitable. He would, essentially, try out for the role during 1969 and 1970 before being appointed Artistic Director in 1972 and guiding the theatre for the subsequent 37 years. Among his many achievements was giving the theatre an international profile, cementing its place as one of the UKs most significant regional new writing companies as well as, in 1996, moving the company to a purpose-built, state-of-the-art home at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. With the benefit of hindsight, this decision to appoint Alan as Artistic Director seems an obvious one, but had Alan not had such success when he did – his rise to prominence coming almost simultaneously with the death of Stephen Joseph – the future of the theatre might well have been very different.
For Alan personally, the lessons learnt from writing a ‘well-made play’ led to increasing experimentation with theatrical structure and form, which he has continued throughout his writing career. Alan would not write another ‘well-made play’ and its closest companion is probably Taking Steps, Alan’s purest version of a farce. However, Relatively Speaking introduces one of the most common themes found throughout Alan’s writing career: the relationship between men and women. At its heart, no matter how insubstantial, Relatively Speaking concerns the relationships of two couples. Practically every subsequent play deals with men and women’s relationships, marriages, infidelities, crises and so on. As a recognisable theme, this begins in Relatively Speaking.
The play would also mark the beginning of the end of writing gag-lines; Alan felt that prior to Time And Time Again in 1971, he did try and slip gags into his plays (which he also felt he wasn’t very good at). There are very few such lines in Relatively Speaking and the play demonstrates his growing maturity as a playwright where the comedy develops from dialogue, situation and context rather than overtly witty or comedic lines.
Finally, what can not be forgotten is how popular Relatively Speaking was and still proves to be. Demand from professional and amateur companies, first in the UK and then around the world, established Alan’s popularity on a wider basis and arguably led him to become such a well-loved and popular playwright.
That demand for the play has been almost unflagging since – occasionally much to the playwright’s annoyance when he considers he has written better plays since! – and it has been consistently widely produced and remains popular. Indeed – lockdown permitting – it will be the re-opening play at The Mill At Sonning (18 May to 30 July) and there are several more productions already being planned for this year.
It has been a consistent and reliable hit for Alan Ayckbourn over more than five decades. It is doubtful, Alan Ayckbourn himself could ever have imagined or expected how popular and well-loved it would become as he sat waiting for the curtain to rise in the West End on this day in 1967.
You can find out more about Relatively Speaking 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.