Ayckbourn At 70: Private Fears In Public Places (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 Private Fears In Public Places.

In 1994, the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round announced Alan Ayckbourn’s 46th play would be called Private Fears In Public Places.
It would be a decade and 21 plays later before it actually appeared on stage. But back in 1994, this was the title for a never-to-be-realised airport-set drama. When writer’s block struck, Alan abandoned the idea and instead wrote
Communicating Doors, a time-travelling drama set in a hotel room.
It was only in 2004 that
Private Fears In Public Places emerged and it was unlike anything Alan had written before. Described by the author as “the nearest thing to a film I've ever done on stage” it consists of 54 scenes without an interval and is a powerful dissection of the lives of lonely 30-somethings in London.
The play was inspired by the acting company Alan was directing in the world premiere of
Drowning On Dry Land. During rehearsals, he announced he had had another idea for the company if they were interested. They were and the resulting play was shoe-horned into the summer schedule and advertising material was hastily altered.
It opened in August 2004 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough and generally confounded the critics, who seemed not to know what to make of a play which broke the Ayckbourn mould so completely. Even he admitted it was new territory for his writing: “it explores new ground for me, in theme, character and structure.” It would take another year and a transfer to another continent before the play came to be fully appreciated.
Private Fears In Public Places only had a short initial run in Scarborough. It was revived the following year with most of the original cast in place for another short run, before touring to the Orange Tree, Richmond for a month; reviews again being mixed with the exception of a particularly perceptive piece by Michael Billington in The Guardian who noted: “his 67th play strikes me as one of his recent best.”
The play then famously transferred to the
Brits Off Broadway festival in New York at the 59E59 Theaters. This was the first time the Scarborough theatre had toured a production to New York and there was considerable financial risk in doing so. The tour would suffer a loss if audience figures did not reach 58%; initial sales were solid if not spectacular.
All this changed when the reviews were published. The New York Times declared: “It is rueful, funny, touching and altogether wonderful” and “that Scarborough should be anointed a Mecca for admirers of first-rate, frill-free acting.” The play’s success was all but guaranteed. As the critiques rolled in expressing praise, it became the hottest ticket in town and soon sold out. The perception of the play began to change as consequently more attention was given to the play in the UK following its American success than it had ever received the previous year in Scarborough.
Its success led to many rumours it would return to Broadway but with an American cast directed by Alan. The proposed production for 2006 was actually cast but ultimately collapsed when the producers decided to move it into a bigger venue on Broadway rather than the ideal intimate one off-Broadway originally proposed to Alan. He refused to accept the move, knowing that he had little to gain and everything to lose from an inferior production of a play which had generated some of the most enthusiastic reviews of his career from some of the most demanding critics in the world.
The following year saw even more interest in the play when the acclaimed French film director Alain Resnais approached Alan about adapting it for film. Resnais had previously adapted Alan’s epic
Intimate Exchanges cycle into two films and the pair had been friends for many years. Alan agreed and left the director to craft a Paris-set version of the play featuring a strong cast. Despite the relocation and the translation into French, it remains one of the most faithful and accomplished of the filmed adaptations of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays and is a favourite of the playwright.
Premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2006, under the title
Coeurs (literal translation: Hearts) it won the Silver Lion for Best Director for Resnais and would be released internationally under its original title.
The play has since been performed around the world, notably in Australia, Europe and, most recently, in China. The Royal & Derngate’s production is only the third professional production in the UK following Scarborough and Manchester.

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