Ayckbourn At 70: Man Of The Moment (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 Man Of The Moment.

In 1986, Alan Ayckbourn left his adopted home town of Scarborough to take a sabbatical at the National Theatre. The next two years was a period of extraordinary success and acclaim as both playwright and director and there was speculation he would remain in London.
Alan never had any intention but to return to Scarborough in 1988 and, reinvigorated by his break, he wrote one of his most ambitious plays
Man Of The Moment; a darkly comic piece confronting morality in the modern world and the amorality of the media
It was partly inspired by Alan travelling to work whilst in London and passing the flower stall of Buster Edwards, one of the Great Train Robbers, whose life was shortly to be made into the film
Buster. Alan thought it ironic the villains had become celebrities whilst the unfortunate train driver, who died of his injuries, had been all but forgotten.
It is the first and so far only Ayckbourn play to be set in a foreign country (excepting the fantastical locations of the family plays) and Alan felt it broke new territory for his writing: “It does deal with an issue, violence and our response to it. I’m usually know for writing about a lady having an unhappy life in Reading, or someone having a nervous breakdown in a garage. I've come out of the domestic arena. I’ve begun to formulate a few opinions. Until recently I had no opinions whatsoever.”
The play opened at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough on 10 August 1988 and was well-received by the critics, who believed Alan’s plays were getting darker. Something Alan disagreed with: “The comedy is decidedly black, but, you know, I’ve always written in that vein. People simply didn’t recognise it. Perhaps they didn’t want to.” As
Just Between Ourselves clearly demonstrates in the Ayckbourn At 70 season, the darkness was there long before Man Of The Moment came along.
The play’s most famous physical feature was its swimming pool, which posed little problem in Scarborough but promised a challenge for its transfer to London in 1990. The set at the Globe Theatre had a pool filled with 5,000 gallons of water and there is a sense the press was eagerly waiting for a repeat of the incident which had seen Alan’s play
Way Upstream flood the National Theatre in 1982. Alan played along, but never doubted this design was made of far sterner stuff. “We could be tempting fate. This one has 36 tons of water in it. It’s one thing to flood the stalls at the National but if this tank goes in Shaftesbury Avenue we could close the Northern Line.”
This production of Man Of The Moment starred Peter Bowles and Michael Gambon, not as might be expected in the larger than life character of Vic Parks but as the unassuming and content Douglas Beechey. Unanimously acclaimed in the role, it intriguingly saw the actor’s physical transformation compared to a penguin and, most memorably, as: “his whole body mass seems to redistribute itself like a giant sea anemone”. He won several awards for the performance, confirming his place as the pre-eminent Ayckbourn actor (Gambon is the most prolific Ayckbourn actor in London productions of the playwright’s work).
The play’s reception was notable in that, coincidentally like
Just Between Ourselves, many critics were keen to push the comparison between Ayckbourn’s writing and Chekhov’s plays; something which must have pleased the playwright who has always cited Chekhov as an inspiration. The play was nominated for an Olivier and won the Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy. Gambon would win his second Olivier in three years in an Ayckbourn-directed production, having also been recognised in Ayckbourn’s acclaimed production of Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge.
Given the nature of the play, it is not surprising that there have been many proposed plans to adapt
Man Of The Moment for television or film. Although none of these has ever come to fruition, it has been adapted twice for radio. The first adaptation for the BBC was broadcast in 1992 and a second adaptation was broadcast on the playwright’s 70th birthday weekend this year featuring Tim Piggott-Smith as Vic and the frequent Ayckbourn collaborator, Janie Dee, as Trudy.

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.