Ayckbourn At 70: Just Between Ourselves (2009)This article by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist Simon Murgatroyd, was published in a souvenir programme to mark the Royal & Derngate Theatres' Ayckbourn At 70 celebration in 2009. It gives a background to the festival's production of Just Between Ourselves.
Prior to 1976, practically all of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays had been written for the summer season at the Library Theatre, Scarborough. For the theatre’s inaugural winter season since Ayckbourn had become Artistic Director in 1972, he wrote a play during the winter months for the first time.
He recalls writing as “North Sea storms hurtled round the house, slates cascaded from the roof and metal chimney cowlings were bounced off parked cars below my window” and what emerged was arguably the darkest play the writer had as yet conceived. What begins in familiar Ayckbourn territory soon veers off into a play which pulls no punches and where the humour can only be labelled as painful. It that does not flinch from a climax which, as many critics noted, has a final laugh that practically dies on the audience’s lips.
Alan considers Just Between Ourselves saw him mature as a writer and move more confidently into the tragic-comedy vein he is best know for. “With that play I knew I was taking a gamble. But the critics saw what I was doing and let me develop. I expected them to be more fierce.”
It was premiered at the Library Theatre on 28 January, 1976, unusually performed three-sided rather than in the round. The larger Concert Room at the venue was not available for the winter, so a smaller room was offered into which it was impossible, given the need for a car on stage amongst other considerations, to perform it in the round.
It was the first of many Ayckbourn world premieres to feature the actor Malcolm Hebden, playing Neil, who wryly noted when he reprised the same role in 1976 he had been too young to play it the first time and was to old to play the role the second time. Christopher Godwin would create the role of Dennis, having previously memorably first performed the iconic roles of Norman in The Norman Conquests and Sidney in Absurd Person Singular.
Just Between Ourselves was also the final play to be performed at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, before the company moved to a new home, Theatre In The Round At Westwood (later altered to the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round).
It transferred to London in 1977 but was not a great success; unfortunately it faced stiffer and far more successful competition from… Alan Ayckbourn. Just Between Ourselves opened practically simultaneously with Bedroom Farce at the National Theatre. It was a great irony that the more commercial play opened at the National, while the difficult play was left to fight it out in the West End. Bedroom Farce would run for 29 months, first in repertory at the National before transferring into the West End. Just Between Ourselves ran for just five months, despite a cast which included Michael Gambon and Colin Blakeley - who both felt in hindsight they had been miscast.
It also divided critics. To many, Just Between Ourselves was a turning point for Alan, maturing as a playwright and drawing favourable comparisons with Chekhov. For others it was a step too far though and he was criticised for not providing the expected farcical laughs and for making light of serious matters such as mental illness. Something which the play patently does not do. It was also the first time many critics began to seriously challenge the assumption that a London production was always the better one; that despite the star names and higher production values, the definitive production of an Ayckbourn play was in the round in Scarborough with his own hand-picked ensemble company. Despite all this, it did make an impact in London winning the Evening Standard Award for Best Play.
Just Between Ourselves break-through to a wider audience came when it was adapted for television in 1978. It starred Richard Briers as Dennis and was a huge ratings success, although Alan has noted that what stands as one of the better filmed adaptations of his work was all but ruined when the powerful final shot on Vera in close-up was ruined by an over-zealous TV commentator announcing the evening’s schedule.
Just Between Ourselves would also be adapted twice for the radio in 1984 and 2008 for the BBC as well as being adapted into an audio-drama by LA Theater Works in 2000, with Alfred Molina playing Dennis. This makes it one of the most adapted of all Ayckbourn plays.
Back on the stage, the play was revived in 1996 to mark the end of another venue. The play, directed by Robin Herford and featuring Malcolm Hebden reprising his role as Neil, was chosen by Alan to be the final production performed at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round before it moved to its new home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.