Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Small Family Business: Ayckbourn Memories

The National Theatre's revival of A Small Family Business opens on Tuesday night, 27 years after the play premiered in the same venue. It was originally commissioned as one of three (later expanded to four) plays which Alan Ayckbourn would direct at the National Theatre whilst on a two year sabbatical from his home theatre in Scarborough. In this article from 1988, Alan Ayckbourn talks about his experiences at the National Theatre during this period and his work on A Small Family Business.

Alan Ayckbourn's National Service
It sounds rather rude to say so, since he is not much older than I am, but Peter Hall has always been what I choose to term one of my guardian uncles. During my life there have been several; none, alas, relatives.
He first ‘adopted’ me as a playwright while I was being very successful (and hence, in the eyes of most critics, rather down-market) in the West End. Peter invited me to write something for the newly built, as yet unfinished, National Theatre South Bank building. He suggested the Lyttelton Theatre.
I gazed at the empty concrete shell of the bare theatre. It seemed similar in scale to the Houston Astrodome - though admittedly lacking some of that vast indoor arena’s acoustic intimacy. I was used to working at the time in a 250-seat theatre in the small lecture room of the public library - nobody more than twenty feet from the centre of the action, and to avoid injury would patrons in the front row please keep their feet off the acting area.
So I wrote Bedroom Farce for Peter: it seemed to solve the Lyttelton problem by dividing the stage into three smaller stages. The announcement of the play caused a lot of flak. The NT was struggling to establish itself in its new home and was subject to a lot of sniping anyway. If it wasn’t the building, it was the productions. Basically, some critics asked what this temple of the arts was doing, presenting this commercial chappie from the West End. The short answer was that it was trying to bring to the place an audience that normally shied away from temples. It isn’t, in today’s climate, a question people ask; I think I have grown a little more respectable, though that is not what I have striven for. My last play, according to the playbills, was written by the Scarborough Building Society. Nice going, lads, is all I can say.
Peter and I co-directed the production. Later I did Sisterly Feelings with the equally avuncular Christopher Morahan, this time for the Olivier.
Then, in 1982, for my first solo voyage, Way Upstream which, thanks to an awful lot of flooding (real boat, real water), almost sank without trace. Ruefully wringing out his wellingtons, Peter asked me for another, and it was as a result of the next success, A Chorus of Disapproval, that he asked me if l would be interested in taking a longer break from Scarborough. He had recently formulated the idea of dividing the National into separate companies.
Would I like to form a group of my own? After twenty-five years, it struck me that a short break from Scarborough, and the Stephen Joseph Theatre-in-the-Round there, might not be a bad idea.
My terms of reference were generous and wide. Three plays, including a new one of my own for the Olivier; and, preceding that, one in the Lyttelton and another in the Cottesloe. The rest - casting, choice of plays - was left up to me.
I started by inviting Michael Gambon out to lunch to see if he would be interested and, if so, what plays he would fancy doing. We are both men of few words and large appetites. Before the soup had hit the table we had fixed the season and set about the serious business of downing the minestrone. We settled on Miller’s A View From The Bridge (which worried Michael a little because he seemed to recall that the hero had an awful lot of lines) and the 1925 Aldwych farce, Tons Of Money. This latter was much more to Michael’s taste as he was to play the supporting role of the butler, Sprules, with very few lines indeed; besides which, he had played the part before in a studio production and thought he could remember it. My own new play, after our long association together (since 1974 and The Norman Conquests), he agreed to take on trust. The NT contracts department was later quite incredulous. It must have been one of the few instances of a leading actor signing a contract for a play he hadn’t read and a part without a name. Gambon is no ordinary star.
After Gambon’s genuine ‘company’ approach agreeing to big and small parts - it was much easier to approach other actors and persuade them to do likewise. We stood a far better chance now of assembling a real company and not a West End two-stars-and-then-the-rest-of-them affair. Before assembling the rest of the company, though, I had the awesome challenge of writing my own new play.
I came up with a A Small Family Business. With its doll’s house set on two floors, it was really the first play I had written that could not be staged in the round at Scarborough. It is what I term a light-heavyweight piece. In the Olivier it is difficult to do ethereal plays with delicate messages conveyed by eyebrows; I think you need something with a bit of clout. It was good, as I started to build the company, to bring in actors who had worked with me over the years in Scarborough, many of whom had worked for so long and so hard up there for so little, but all of whom understood and supported the company system. A critic said recently that the acting team seem to bat all the way to number eleven. We also bowl a bit, too. Mind you, we had out moments.
Like discovering, as we explored the text more carefully, that Tons of Money - to the modern ear and eye - was totally illogical in places. Whatever logic the play had once had seemed to have died with Tom Walls, Ralph Lynne and Yvonne Arnaud. When you tackle a farce you really earn your money. And the problem is that, beyond a certain level, you can rehearse no further until you have had an audience in to tell you what is funny. We did the equivalent of two weeks work over six weeks in the rehearsal room and then gained six weeks’ experience over nine preview performances in the theatre. Thus, while Gambon contented himself with slowly transforming Sprules the butler into Quasimodo, Diane Bull was developing something equally magical and bizarre as his bent kneed, myopic, parlour maid fiancee and Polly Adams, as the bemused wife, was holding the whole show impeccably together.
A View From The Bridge was almost a holiday by comparison. Being a Cottesloe production (and thus a lower budget) we were obliged to rehearse in church halls in freezing February. We assembled for rehearsal as late as we dared and went home as quickly as we could. Suzan Sylvester, who played the daughter Catherine fell and damaged her knee and rehearsed with a limp for a bit. We contemplated doing Williams’s Glass Menagerie with its crippled heroine instead but she got better.
We were into previews of A Small Family Business before the next disaster occurred. We were doing some tidying up sort of rehearsals one after noon. Gerald Scarfe was sitting in the stalls sketching away bringing out the less fortunate features of Michael Gambon and myself when Michael tripped on a backstage cable severely damaging his ankle. Being the man he is, we stood around for some moments enjoying this latest example of his sense of humour A few seconds later we realised how serious the injury was. He insisted on playing that night, a sort of one legged hopping performance We watched in horror as he turned grey and then yellow with pain. On the following was back again expecting to play. By now the pain of walking was so intense that it was actually difficult to make out what he was saying. Blessedly he agreed to go home. I sought out the understudy Allan Mitchell to inform him that he was to take on Gambon’s huge role that night I found him running his lines appropriately in the NT’s quiet room, an area generally reserved for meditation and prayer. Mitchell took over brilliantly but the official opening was delayed until Gambon’s return.
The first family broke up after a year - ironically the victim of its own success. Because A View From The Bridge was such an immensely popular show it became inevitable that it should transfer from a small theatre - which it did, in November 1987, to the Aldwych Theatre. For those members of the company who left the National, starting with an Aldwych farce and finishing at the theatre itself, it was a case of almost full circle.
A Small Family Business was re-cast, with Stephen Moore (another frequent collaborator of mine from Bedroom Farce days) replacing Michael.
Peter Hall, again, suggested that I might like to do another production, especially since this new group - with the departure of Bridge and the disappearance of Tons from the repertoire - would only have Family Business in its repertoire.
I looked around for another piece for the Olivier. Something big. Something gutsy. My associate artistic director in Scarborough, Robin Herford, who is far better read than I am, suggested ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore. I liked it a lot. It is surprisingly simple and it is also about people I recognize (no dukes, no royalty): corrupt businessmen and difficult teenagers. There is a lot of blood and by the end of the evening very few characters left alive. We are doing it in period. I think you have to be very experienced (or bored) before you choose to clothe everyone in polythene bags and set them on a World War II bomb site: it is hard enough just doing the play.
Besides, I hate monkeying around with other people’s plays. I like to think that John Ford wouldn’t have gone around putting gratuitous murders into How The Other Half Loves either. It is a great company play with everyone getting a look in (before they die) and it reads very fast - less than two hours. A classical play with lots of action with a playing time of around two hours. Everyone in the pub by 9.30pm. What more could you ask for?
I suppose if you work in one place for any length of time, as I have in Scarborough, you begin to wonder if you can manage anywhere else. And faced with an auditorium like the Olivier, you feel - as you would with the man himself - that this is the one to beat. If you can grab and hold an audience in a space that size... Bob Peck once described how, when a big laugh came in that theatre, it was like a shock wave breaking across the stage. The first time he experienced the volume of sound, he involuntarily took a step backwards.
I suppose what I have got from my time at the National Theatre is the excitement of playing in the big league. And a good deal of fun. I have proved to myself that I can play away from Scarborough and win.

Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. This article was first published in the Sunday Telegraph on 21 February 1988.

A Small Family Business opens at the National Theatre on Tuesday 1 April and is currently booking until the end of May. Further details and booking information can be found at the NT website here.
Alan Ayckbourn is also doing a platform talk at the National Theatre to tie in with the production on  Thursday 10 April at 6pm and further information can be found here.
To find out more about the background to A Small Family Business, visit Alan Ayckbourn's Official Website here.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Small Family Business: Interview With Alan Ayckbourn pt.2

In the second part of an exclusive interview with Alan Ayckbourn by his archivist Simon Murgatroyd, the playwright discusses the forthcoming revival of A Small Family Business at the National Theatre and the play's relevance today. Part 1 of the interview can be found here.

A Small Family Business has been described by writers such as Mark Ravenhill and Michael Billington as one of the most significant plays of the 1980s, do you think it’s still relevant?
Definitely. How many of us today steal films and music without a second thought? All those movies people put so much effort - and money - into creating and it now seems to be perfectly acceptable to just download them. All we seemingly need to do is to create a mythical ‘them’ to justify it - ‘they’ won’t notice and ‘they’ won’t ever know.
With A Small Family Business, I started with a bottle of stolen cheap shampoo and extrapolated from there. I took the play to the worst crimes I could think of - one of them was peddling drugs to underage children and the other was murder - both of which I included. The protagonist, Jack, justifies his behaviour as being the next logical step, but remains intensely moral throughout.

Do you think this the right time for the National Theatre’s revival?
Copyright: National Theatre
I think it all just keeps unravelling, doesn’t it? When you of think everything that has happened since 1987 - the MPs with their expenses, the collapse of the banking system, all of it - all this happened after A Small Family Business. I don’t blame people who say, ‘you can’t trust anyone these days.’ You sit there staring at people thinking, ‘what’s your angle, what are you out for?’ It’s fairly awful, the degree of mistrust we have today and it all stems from this disregard of the society we live in.

What was your experience like with the original production?
A Small Family Business was the third play during my season at the National Theatre between 1986 and 1988. All the actors had, at some stage in the season, been working together. So we hit the play running with a company that was up for it and very comfortable with each other.
It was very strange as it was the first time I’d ever written a play quite so far ahead. I gave it to the National's Artistic Director, Peter Hall, long before I even started working on my first play of the season, Tons of Money. By the time we’d finished Tons Of Money, had a small break and then did Miller's A View From The Bridge, it was almost a year since I’d written A Small Family Business.
I remember picking up the script for rehearsals - with these 6 different rooms on two floors, which fortunately the National had the facilities to give us a plywood mock up of -  and going through it and blocking it in just two days and saying “Oh, the playwright knew what he was doing!”

Are there any particular challenges in staging A Small Family Business?
You are watching action in two or three different houses at once on a single set, so it is quite complicated. It remains a huge object lesson in getting a play on its feet as soon as you start because the physicality of the play is everything; I think A Small Family Business has had - since its original production - some less satisfactory productions, to put it politely.
When directing it, you have to remember it's a narrative driven play; it’s really important you keep the audience with you at all times and don’t get sucked into big moral issues. Essentially, this remains a play about an honourable man slowly going to the bad; but - at least in his mind - he remains honourable despite all he does.

You've previously spoken about your unfulfilled plan to direct A Small Family Business at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 2012, would you still consider reviving it?
Maybe I’d revive it at Scarborough - I certainly don’t rule it out. Let's see how the National does! This production has got a good cast and the director, Adam Penford, has formed a company of good actors to tackle it. I suspect it’s a company that you'll want to accept as a family and, that's important, because it is all about the family.

A Small Family Business can be seen at the National Theatre from 1 April. Click here for further information and booking details.
You can hear more of Alan Ayckbourn's thoughts on the play A Small Family Business at his platform talk at the National Theatre at 6pm on Thursday 10 April. Click here for details.

This article is copyright of Simon Murgatroyd and should not be reproduced in any format without the permission of the copyright holder.

Friday, March 21, 2014

A Small Family Business: Interview With Alan Ayckbourn pt.1

Alan Ayckbourn's acclaimed '80s play A Small Family Business is about to be revived by the National Theatre. In an exclusive two-part interview with his archivist Simon Murgatroyd for www.alanayckbourn.net and this blog, the playwright discusses the play, its revival and its legacy.

Simon Murgatroyd: A Small Family Business originally premiered at the National Theatre in 1987, what are your thoughts on the play now?
Alan Ayckbourn: A Small Family Business tends to be seen as quite a big play - and in terms of cast and staging for me, it is - but the actual play is not that big actually. It’s a little morality tale, which is how the National Theatre’s then Artistic Director Peter Hall originally described it when I first sent it to him.
I remember, I was in a dressing room at the National Theatre talking to an actor before the show during its original run and there was a platform talk taking place on the set of A Small Family Business. A very learned academic was addressing the play and its themes; his thesis was the play covered every single one of the seven deadly sins - lust, avarice, anger, greed etc. I thought, ‘Well, I didn’t set out to do that, but it’s an interesting - and valid - idea.’

What inspired you to write the play?
The poster for the original 1987
production of A Small Family
Business.
Copyright: National Theatre
People have subsequently said I was attacking Thatcher’s state, but I was attacking society really. A Small Family Business was inspired by a feeling that I had - and I think many others at the time too - that with the slow erosion of organised religion or any agreed moral codes, many of us were tending to make up our own moral code and that was quite dangerous. Without anything to guide you, you start putting sub-clauses in: thou shalt not steal (except…); thou shalt not kill (except…). I just thought we were all putting caveats into our lives, the way we lived, and one man’s caveat is another man’s complete shock and horror!

Was this your personal experience at the time?
I remember I was sitting in the theatre’s green room once and in the space of ten minutes, an actor declared it was perfectly in order to steal food if you were hungry. Someone else replied, ‘what does that do to the price of beans, because if you steal a lot them, the prices shoot up.'
From there, somebody else said - and it really did create controversy - that it was alright to steal books from bookshops because books contain knowledge and there was an obligation for everyone to have knowledge - also a good collection of illicitly gained novels presumably!
Throughout this conversation, I was thinking, this is extraordinary. But then I remembered my own mother, who used to happily steal when she worked in offices. She used to steal all sorts of stuff. She was quite happy to pack all the hotel towels when we were on holiday as well as soap and ash trays and anything she could put her hands on. I was just a small boy and I would say, ‘Mum, you can’t do that, it doesn’t belong to us’ and she was, ‘no, no, they’ll never notice.’ The suitcases were groaning with contraband when we left the hotel! She would also come home from the office with reams of paper, paperclips and stationary - pencils, pens, anything she could lay her hands on! Of course, I thought, if you continue that to its logical conclusion, you then begin dismantling the desks and taking them out with you as you leave and eventually you close the company.

It’s also quite a subversive play, isn't it? Ideally, as an audience we remain sympathetic to the plight of the protagonist - Jack - despite where his actions lead.
It’s a play which almost follows the rules of farce as, like a farce, it leaves the audience - hopefully - saying at the end, ‘how the hell did we get here?’ As a playwright, my intention was to encourage the audience to agree with every step of Jack’s moral decline until they've got so much blood on their hands too, they’ve been led into almost becoming co-conspirators in the crimes.

The second part of this interview will be published on the blog next week. Watch this space.

A Small Family Business can be seen at the National Theatre from 1 April. Click here for further information and booking details.

This article is copyright of Simon Murgatroyd and should not be reproduced in any format without the permission of the copyright holder.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ask The Archivist: Resnais & Ayckbourn on DVD

Ask The Archivist is an occasional feature allowing you to put your Alan Ayckbourn related questions to the playwright's archivist Simon Murgatroyd.
If you have a question regarding any aspect of Alan's work, email it to: admin@alanayckbourn.net (labelled Ask The Archivist) and we'll publish any interesting questions.

Question: Where can I get or see Alain Resnais's film adaptations of Alan Ayckbourn's plays in the UK?

Answer: With the sad news of the passing of Alain Resnais at the weekend, there's been a rise in interest in his excellent Ayckbourn films.
Alain Resnais made three movies based on Alan Ayckbourn's plays (technically four, but the first consists of two films): Smoking / No Smoking (Intimate Exchanges); Coeurs (Private Fears In Public Places); Aimer, Boire et Chanter (Life Of Riley). The auteur was working on an unrealised fourth movie based on Arrivals & Departures just before his death.

Smoking / No Smoking (1993) had a limited run in British cinemas with English subtitles in 1994 and has occasionally been broadcast in the UK on television. It has never been released on video or DVD in the UK according to the British Board Of Film Certification.
An excellent three disc DVD set was released in France though and which is still available - however, it is French language only and does not have English subtitles. It does, however, include a remastered English language extra of the excellent 1990 BBC Omnibus documentary dedicated to Alan Ayckbourn.
The DVD can found on Amazon here.

Private Fears In Public Places (2006) also had a limited run in British cinemas with English subtitles and the subtitled version was also released on DVD in both the UK and USA (and it's also possible to get the French unsubtitled version, Coeurs). The subtitled DVD was released by Artificial Eye in the UK and includes a short but interesting interview with Alan Ayckbourn about the film.
The DVD is still available and can be found at Amazon here.

Aimer, Boire et Chanter (2014) was Alain Resnais's final film and was premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February. It is due to get a cinema release in France on 26 March, but no further dates for other territories have been announced as yet. It is also too early to know whether it will receive a DVD release outside France. News about this film being released in the UK or USA and future releases will be carried on this website.

To submit your question to Ask The Archivist, email Simon Murgatroyd at: admin@alanayckbourn.net  labelled Ask The Archivist.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Alain Resnais: 1922 - 2014

Updated: 21:52 03/02/14 with Alan Ayckbourn quote
Alain Resnais, the acclaimed French film auteur, has died this weekend at the age of 91.
Alain Resnais
Copyright: TBC
His last film was Aimer, Boire et Chanter, an adaptation of Alan Ayckbourn's Life Of Riley. This was the third Ayckbourn play adapted by Resnais following Smoking / No Smoking (Intimate Exchanges) in 1993 and Coeurs (Private Fears In Public Places) in 2006.
Sir Alan Ayckbourn said of the news: "I have lost not only a dear personal friend but a close kindred creative spirit."
Resnais was a great fan of Alan Ayckbourn's work and the pair first met in Scarborough at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, to which Resnais frequently visited. He later married his wife Sabine Azema in Scarborough, for whom Alan Ayckbourn wrote a French-speaking part in his play House & Garden (1999) as a wedding present.
Alan Ayckbourn recently said he thought Aimer, Boire et Chanter - which has just won a Silver Bear at the Berlinale 2014 - was "extraordinaire."
His producer, Jean-Louis Livi, also noted Resnais was working on his next script Arrivées Et Départs; an adaptation of Alan Ayckbourn's 2013 play Arrivals & Departures.
The Guardian's obituary for Alain Resnais can be found here and the Variety obituary here.