Whenever: A Word On Whenever (2000)

This article was written by Alan Ayckbourn for the Stephen Joseph Theatre Friends' winter 2000 newsletter.

Despite the fact that I've written - well, I'm beginning to forget the number now but I have a vague feeling that I'm rapidly catching up with my own age - a great number of plays, I always get a special frisson when it comes to writing one of my children's shows, or as I prefer to call them, my family shows.
Writing to involve a younger audience, often including five and even four year olds, does present its own special problems, of course. As I'm fond of saying, practically everything required for a successful adult show - strong plotting, interesting character development, emotional variation, thought provoking ideas - is needed in the younger counterpart, only twice as much. In addition what makes the task especially difficult is that I invariably try to create something that might involve the parents and even the grandparents.
When my own sons were growing up I faced that deep frustration, experienced I'm sure by most parents wanting to introduce their children to the joys of live theatre, namely that there appeared to be little or nothing it seemed that all of us could sit through and enjoy together.
On offer was either the (by far the least preferable) commercial panto geared almost exclusively to adults with its stream of snide knowingness and double entendres. How irritating for the average child, sitting in a roomful of giggling adults and wondering what the joke is. Or, on the other hand (and only slightly more preferable) one of those hearty in-your-face shows, presumably intended for children, played at deafening volume by largely inexperienced actors dispensing the coarsest, remorseless, unfunniest of comedy. Surely, I reasoned, there must be something other than this to offer?
I have tried in all the family plays to be as fair as I can. I have tried to write what I think would interest and involve children. Yet I have also tried never to write down to them. They are, of course, not an audience that responds well to being patronised - and certainly never to being underestimated. Better I reason that you include a word that they might not understand, rather than one that they think of before the character does.
Whenever is my first full-length collaboration with composer Denis King. There are no prizes for spotting that, on one level, it owes a debt of gratitude to Frank L. Baum. It also owes a bit to H.G. Wells and Isaac Asimov and Albert Einstein. But then, if you must borrow, always borrow from the best. I hope its narrative is strong enough to keep our young audience in its seat, besides proving simple enough for even mere adults to enjoy - with or without a child to explain it to them.

Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without the permission of the copyright holder.