Magazine article The Spectator

Ayckbourn's Unflinching Gaze

Magazine article The Spectator

Ayckbourn's Unflinching Gaze

Article excerpt

Alan Ayckbourn, so theatre lore has it, is the second-most performed British playwright after Shakespeare. So why has he become so unfashionable among theatre cognoscenti?

Partly, it's his own doing. In 2002, disillusioned by the musical-laden, drama-free territory it had become and despite his many successes there throughout his career, he announced a West End hiatus on his work (only recently ended for a revival of Absurd Person Singular with Jane Horrocks). Plus, he insists on premiering all his new work in his beloved home town of Scarborough.

And two of his tropes -- complicated plotlines and sets that require pinpoint timing of entrances and exits -- might lead some more foolish commentators to describe him as the thinking man's Ray Cooney.

Mostly, though, it's because Ayckbourn, 69, is no shockmeister in the style of the late Sarah Kane (third on that list, by the way).

Swear words are used minimally (but always to maximum effect when they are), there's no simulated sex on stage (although it is much talked about by his often lustful and/or frustrated characters), and the only bloodletting on stage is emotional rather than literal. In short, he writes about the lives and loves of the middle classes -- and we all know how that plays in lefty luvviedom.

But a major revival of his best-known work, The Norman Conquests, at the Old Vic in London (previewing now and opening 6 October), should serve to remind us why Ayckbourn is one of our greatest living playwrights. So keen was the Old Vic's artistic director Kevin Spacey to stage the work that he agreed to reconfigure the auditorium into a theatre in the round, like the Library Theatre (now the Stephen Joseph) in Scarborough, for which it was originally written.

The Norman Conquests is a trilogy -- Table Manners, Living Together and Round and Round the Garden -- designed to be seen either as self-contained pieces, or as one whole work, and concerns the complicated love lives of three couples: Norman and his wife, Ruth; Ruth's brother Reg and his wife, Sarah; and Ruth and Reg's younger sister, Annie, and her putative boyfriend, Tom. The action takes place in Annie's house (and its garden) over one weekend, and is told from a different couple's viewpoint in a different setting each time.

After a brief run at Scarborough in 1973 and then another at Greenwich Theatre in London, the trilogy became a huge hit in the West End in 1974, with Tom Courtenay as Norman. It made stars of the rest of its previously unknown cast: Michael Gambon, Felicity Kendal and Penelope Keith and, later in its 18-month run, Julia McKenzie, and ran on Broadway for seven months.

Norman (played in the Old Vic production by Stephen Mangan, of Green Wing fame) feels it is his duty to keep every woman in his life happy, and the way he thinks a man keeps a woman happy is to lust after her.

The trilogy came just a few years after the publication of Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch, and Norman's view of women -- or perhaps that should be Ayckbourn's -- might be considered hopelessly out of date in 2008. But not so, says Amanda Root, who plays Sarah. 'Although women's issues have obviously progressed since it was written, ' she says, 'gender politics and male/female roles at home and at work are still as potentially fraught with tension today. …

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