Relatively Speaking: The Aftermath (2012)

This article by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist Simon Murgatroyd, was published to mark the 45th anniversary of Alan Ayckbourn's Relatively Speaking in 2012.

The extraordinary success of Relatively Speaking had repercussions for Alan Ayckbourn both in the short and the long term.
In the West End, the play bucked the current trend for heavyweight playwrights and realism, demonstrating that while it may be unfashionable, there was still an audience eager for well-written and produced comedies. As many critics noted, Relatively Speaking was head and shoulders above recent comedy fare in the quality of the script and production, which would lead to demand for more plays of this type from Alan.
The next of his plays to open in London was
How The Other Half Loves, which if anything was even more of a success than Relatively Speaking. However, Alan and seasoned critics such as Michael Billington have no doubt that in some respects, the success of these two plays set Alan’s career back. Both plays are essentially comedies which border on farce. As a result, Alan was stuck with the label of farceur for many years to come despite that as early as 1971 Alan was no longer writing the light comedies he was associated with. Despite the fact Alan was phenomenally popular and often received glowing reviews, he would not be viewed as a ‘serious’ playwright for many years to come.
On the other hand, the success of the first two plays began an extraordinary run for Alan Ayckbourn, making him one of the most successful British playwright of the 20th century. Between 1965 and 1989, Alan would write 32 plays, 28 of which would go on to London productions in either the West End or the National Theatre. As of 2013, he has written 77 plays with 39 having gone on to open in London. A remarkable achievement by anyone’s standards.
An unexpected consequence, but possibly the most far-reaching, is the effect this success had with regard to Scarborough. In 1967, Alan’s mentor Stephen Joseph died and the Library Theatre, Scarborough, was left without an obvious future nor direction. At the same time, Alan became its first appreciable success. It is hard to imagine this was not an attraction to Scarborough Theatre Trust looking for a way to not only survive, but move forward whilst preserving Stephen’s legacy. With Alan’s commitment to writing new plays for Scarborough, the theatre had both a natural successor and a public figurehead supportive of the cause. In such circumstances, his appointment as Artistic Director in 1972 seems inevitable. With the benefit of hindsight, this decision seems obvious, but had Alan not had such success when he did, the future of the theatre might well have been very different.
For Alan, the lessons learnt from writing a ‘well-made play’ led to increasing experimentation with theatrical structure and form, which he has continued throughout his writing career. Alan would not write another ‘well-made play’ and its closest companion is probably
Taking Steps, Alan’s purest version of a farce. However, Relatively Speaking introduces one of the most common themes found throughout Alan’s writing career: the relationship between men and women. At its heart, no matter how insubstantial, Relatively Speaking concerns the relationships of two couples. Practically every subsequent play deals with men and women’s relationships, marriages, infidelities, crises and so on. As a recognisable theme, this begins in Relatively Speaking. The play would also mark the beginning of the end of writing gag-lines; Alan feels that prior to Time And Time Again in 1971, he did slip gags into his plays (which he also felt he wasn’t very good at). There are very few such lines in Relatively Speaking and the play demonstrates his growing maturity as a playwright where the comedy develops from dialogue, situation and context rather than overtly witty or comedic lines.
What can not be forgotten is how popular
Relatively Speaking was and still proves to be. Demand from professional and amateur companies, first in the UK and then around the world, established Alan’s popularity on a wider basis and arguably led him to become such a well-loved and popular playwright. It is a mark of the success of the play, that more than 45 years on, it is still a widely produced and popular play.

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