The Importance Of Period In Alan Ayckbourn's Plays (2000)

With a writing career spanning more than 50 years, the period of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays is becoming increasingly important when mounting productions of his work.
Many of Alan’s best known plays are now several decades old:
The Norman Conquests was written in 1973; Absurd Person Singular in 1972 and Bedroom Farce in 1975. Whilst it would be wrong to suggest the plays cannot be staged in a modern setting, it does pose problems with certain plays and runs the risk of reducing the richness of the material.
While much of the timelessness of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays is due to their concentration on relationships between men and women - something which is pertinent to any period - often the plays gain from an understanding of when they were written.
How The Other Half Loves and Relatively Speaking are certainly products of their time; Absurd Person Singular loses some of its sting when not put in the context of the early ‘70s and the inexorable rise of the British middle-class as a domineering force in British life and business. Likewise, it is hard to imagine A Small Family Business having the same impact if it is taken out of the ‘80s milieu where it offers a scathing reflection of Thatcher’s Britain.
There can also be practical problems; which particularly apply to
Bedroom Farce. The play itself is relatively timeless, but it spins on the lack of communication between the couples and the need to visit each home separately. In an age where mobile phones are practically an extension of our bodies, it strains credibility that in a modern production, none of the characters either had or have access to a phone - particularly the bed-bound Nick. It may appear to be a small problem, easily resolved, but even Alan Ayckbourn believes it can affect the play.
“We revived it here [the Stephen Joseph Theatre] a few years ago and I did set it in the ‘70s. Mainly because of the mobile phone issue. Yes, Trevor might be nonplussed if faced with one though I have a nasty feeling he would take great delight in texting all and sundry. The real problem for me was Nick. He would certainly have had a mobile. OK, I could have written in lines about him losing it in the bed etc. etc. but that struck me as a bit tedious. The other point is that neither Jan nor Kate work. Not that important but an extra reason for leaving the play in the decade it was written.”
The latter point is also well worth considering as social morays change. Socially, Britain is in no way the same as it was in the mid-’70s, when it was only starting to become the norm for women to enter full-time work. A period setting helps make the characters all the more credible - a similar situation can be found in
Relatively Speaking with regard to the difference between Ginny and Sheila; Sheila is of a world where women of her situation did not have to work; Ginny represents the new woman who wants to be part of and succeed in the workplace. A point emphasised by Alan.
“Bedroom Farce has to be set in the 70's. It must be before mobile phones were invented; none of the women have jobs; Susannah is very much a child of the 70's and the older couple probably wouldn't behave in quite the same way today - dinner jackets etc.”
Of course, period settings pose other problems as frequent Ayckbourn designer Michael Holt has pointed out: “Part of the problem, if you’re not careful, you end up in funny ‘60s or ‘70s clothes. People end up in the bizarre end of the '70s.” A good solution to this is to present the play in the correct period, but with what Holt refers to a non-period period clothing. On one level, every-day fashion does not change much from decade to decade, a suit is still a suit, an A-line skirt still an A-line skirt; it does not take much to evoke a period without caricaturing it, as Holt emphasises: “You have to find a non-period because otherwise you’re setting up expectations of social comment and Alan’s plays are not this, they’re character driven. What he’s writing about is character and they are not defined by their clothes. If you’re not careful you define who they are by the quirky period stuff. The clothes start to dictate who they are instead of the characters dictating how they should appear.”
When staging plays any of Alan AYckbourn's plays, period is always an important consideration but care should be taken to make sure that while the play is recognisably in the correct period, the details do not overwhelm the play or draw notice to themselves.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.