Welcome to the Family: Interview with Alan Ayckbourn

Rehearsals begin today for the world premiere of Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s 88th play, Welcome to the Family.

The play opens on 12 May at The Old Laundry Theatre, Bowness-on-Windermere and runs until 27 May. It follows a young man introducing his girlfriend to his parents. Who died 10 years earlier…

In a holographic capture of an afternoon before they died, Josh brings Sara along to meet this digital memory of his Mum & Dad, but her presence changes the course of the afternoon and as the champagne pours, secrets spill.

To mark the start of rehearsals, here’s an interview with Sir Alan about the play and returning to Bowness with a second world premiere in two years.

Welcome to the Family: Simon Murgatroyd Interview with Alan Ayckbourn

Simon Murgatroyd: So Alan, tell us a little bit about Welcome to the Family.

Sir Alan Ayckbourn (© Tony Bartholomew / mail@bartpics.co.uk)

Alan Ayckbourn: It’s a ‘what if’ play. It’s based on the assumption that before long we’re going to be able to holographically record events in our lives which we can then relive. They’re called ‘Captures’ in the play. It gives us a chance to go back and revisit relatives and loved ones long past as well as the obvious events that are used now. What parent hasn’t got somewhere a recording of their child’s graduation or speech day and they’ll play that ad infinitum and relive it with – or without – the child’s permission often long after they’ve grown out of it, going ‘Oh Mum, do we have to sit through this again?’

Presumably, this interactive hologram isn’t going to end well for all concerned?

Josh has an obsession with his late parents and keeps reliving one certain afternoon with them through a ‘Capture’. The tipping point for the play is he persuades a girl he’s rather keen on to come back with him into the ‘Capture’ as his school chum – although they are both in their 30s and she is a mother of two from a previous marriage! She is reluctantly projected into the world of this boy’s past and they relive the afternoon. Only her presence, of course, upsets the equilibrium of the event and slowly it’s revealed that what Josh has witnessed and was recorded is not quite the truth of the matter.

It’s also about that moment when we bring someone home for the first time, that we’re keen on to meet our family. We see the family through our new beloved’s eyes and say, ‘what an extraordinary bunch of people they are!’

It feels like one of your plays which tells us to be wary of escaping from reality into fantasy.

It is that. We are all, to varying degrees, guilty of this. If we dwell for too long on old photographs or old recordings or old videos or 8mm recordings of days gone by.

I think because of the dangers of looking ahead – my goodness me, at the moment people are nailing up warning signs everywhere. If it’s not ecology, its world destruction through nuclear holocaust… So there is a tendency to want to look back, ‘Those were the days, the good old sunny ‘70s, the blissful ‘60s’ and I guess they were alright, but we tend to make them very rosey.

This tendency to look back is not healthy, we should be concerned with the future – and while a lot of people are, of course, increasingly people also are turning their back on the future and retreating into the past in the way that Josh in the play does, because he can’t actually face the fact that he is no longer at school and his parents are not alive.

But the danger is, it’s like remembering people from a photograph in which they were smiling. Of course, if you look at a picture of your great aunt smiling, you would probably think, ‘God she was a miserable woman in real life.’

The smile is a lie in fact, that is unaccustomed and done for the camera, of course. Truth  will out in the end and indeed during the play, it does sort of dribble out as we slowly learn the true facts of that afternoon.

There is also another element with the uncle – Lance – who is also using the ‘Capture’ for his own nefarious reasons to pursue his love life, which is a completely different agenda. But, heavens, when has it not happened with new technology that the first people in there are the sex merchants or pornographers!

You’re returning to The Old Laundry with your second world premiere in two years, are you looking forward to that?

Definitely – and we’re in the full round this year. It’s a rather nice relationship which I hope we can continue.

Following the Covid setbacks, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough has – along with most theatres – cut back on its products including my shows. I’m rationed to one a year for the SJT – I used to do a revival there paralleling the new play. The revival went and with it went quite a substantial part of my year – the enjoyment of revisiting an old show alongside a new show with the same company is no longer possible.

But to compensate for this, I’m luckily now able to produce two new plays a year – although just not in the same venue.

It’s a nice feeling to be stepping back as it were – to step into Josh’s shoes for a moment; The Old Laundry reminds me of Westwood, the second home of the company in Scarborough from the ‘70s – ‘90s. It’s a slightly simpler venue and I welcome a step back towards simplicity. At one stage in my career, I delighted in flooding stages and bringing mysterious things through trap doors and I hope those plays survived the onslaught of the technology I set upon them. But these days I’m attempting to try and go back to basics. I think the future of theatre as we knew it / know it is lower key and simpler. I’m going to the essentials of theatre, the actors and the audience.

Finally, if you could sum Welcome to the Family up in a sentence, how would you describe it?

It’s light-hearted piece, but it has a dark shadow of how we see the past and how others see us, it’s a sort of fable really.

Further details and bookings for Welcome to the Family can be found at The Old Laundry Theatre website by clicking here.

Interview by and copyright of Simon Murgatroyd, please do not reproduce without permission.

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