Play Houses

Five years ago today, Alan Ayckbourn’s acclaimed play A Brief History of Women opened at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.

The play, which followed a man and his connection to a stately home through six decades, opened on 5 September 2017 and would later transfer to New York as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival.

To mark the anniversary, this is a reproduction of the article I wrote for the world premiere programme for A Brief History of Women, looking at the significance of some other houses in Alan Ayckbourn’s plays.

Play House by Simon Murgatroyd

“I’ve written plays with a man as the central character, and plays with a woman as the central character. And I’ve written plays with characters that never actually appear – but I think this is the first time I’ve written a play with a house as the central character.” Alan Ayckbourn

A Brief History of Women poster (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

\Within A Brief History of Women, there’s a character which is not listed in the credits, but which is a perpetual presence every bit as essential to the narrative as its protagonist Anthony Spates.

It endures just as many changes and upheavals over the years as Spates, including various ignominies heaped upon it over six decades. It is Kirkbridge Manor, the setting for the play and which we visit in various incarnations.

Whilst this may be the first time a house has been a central character in an Ayckbourn play, it’s not the first play to feature a memorable setting which has become far more than just a backdrop to the action.

One of the most memorable examples can be seen alongside A Brief History of Women this summer at the SJT with Taking Steps (1979), set on three storeys of The Pines; an old, reputedly haunted house which has also suffered ignominy, the most recent having to be lived in by bucket magnate Roland Crabbe.

The Pines is integral to Taking Steps as its three floors, interwoven amongst each other on one set, not only provides the backdrop for farcical opportunities, but becomes progressively more real in our minds. Despite the fact The Pines is – at first glance – just a strange confection of beds, flat staircases and chairs, by the end of the play, it’s arguably a fully realised house in the minds of the audience.

This in itself is a natural development of one of Ayckbourn’s first experimentations with setting in How The Other Half Loves (1969). Here two practically identical living rooms are overlaid on each other, allowing events in different locations – even times – to be portrayed simultaneously. This culminates in an uproarious scene, where two dinners unfold concurrently in different homes on two evenings.

Into the ‘80s and one of Ayckbourn’s most acclaimed plays of the period is dominated by a fully realised life-size doll house in A Small Family Business (1987). He was commissioned to write this play by the National Theatre and, famously, came up with it as a solution to overcome the challenges of the vast Olivier stage.

Here we have another callback to How The Other Half Loves as the house is ever-present and completely integrated into the plot. From initially opening as the home of the McCrackens in the first scene, it becomes – as required – several homes with action able to simultaneously take place in different rooms of different houses in a complete coup de théâtre.

But, I hear you ask, how is it believable the same set believably portrays different several places? With typical ingenuity, Ayckbourn presents the solution – all the characters work for the same family furniture firm and thus their homes are all furnished with the identical latest range.

While A Small Family Business features a literal creation of a house, arguably one of Ayckbourn’s most famous architectural creations is built purely in the minds of its young audience – and who knows what fantastical creations they have imagined over the years?

The second act of Mr A’s Amazing Maze Plays (1988) is set entirely within the vast home of the sound-stealing Mr Accousticus. It is built purely in the imagination though as it’s not possible to show the rooms as the configuration of the house alters with each performance; the audience determines what path the heroine, Suzy, takes through the building in search of her dog, Neville. So depending on choice, Suzy can stumble on anything from a dungeon to wine cellar, laboratory to secret room, all realised with a little light and sound alongside a lot of imagination.

During the ‘90s, there really is only one house we can talk about in Ayckbourn’s plays and that is the eponymous setting of House (1999). Possibly the closest relation to A Brief History Of Women’s Kirkbridge Manor. It too is a Georgian building with a rich history including an old library which previously replaced an older library, but which has never been used as a library and the current owner, Teddy Platt, can’t recall a book ever gracing the room.

It’s also a house which has seen its fair share of change, not least its East Wing destroyed during the war and taking with it one of the many Platt women to have met unfortunate and untimely ends within the house.

It also has a rather nice Garden too.

The home possibly best remembered from the ‘00s is the anonymous London Dockland flats found in the Damsels In Distress trilogy.

The trilogy was inspired by the playwright’s desire to return to a repertory season at the theatre with one company and one set serving three very different plays. As an audience, we all know the set is the same for each piece, but each one develops its own personality and character dependent on the people inhabiting them.

Which brings us up to date with A Brief History of Women and a house that has a definite character of its own, which has borne witness to a fascinating story of an ordinary man and the many extraordinary women who have passed through his life.

Welcome to 1925 and Kirkbridge Manor…

This article is written by Simon Murgatroyd and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.

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