Subverting Suburbia (2008)

This article was commissioned by the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, for the Things That Go Bump season in 2008.

Christmas in Suburbia. In Middle England, possibly a town called Pendon, a husband and wife argue at the dinner table.
It’s practically an Ayckbourn cliché.
Except the husband is dead. Admittedly he’s not letting that get in the way of making his point, but he’s certainly had his day.
This scene is typical of these three plays which subvert what is often construed as a typical view of Alan Ayckbourn’s writing.
In
Haunting Julia, a father obsessed with discovering why his daughter committed suicide begins to seek answers from beyond the grave. In Snake In The Grass, two sisters are reunited after their father’s death. As night falls and darkness encroaches, unnerving events force them to confront their father’s legacy and his affect on them. In Life & Beth, a widow prepares to move on in her life, but some people are just not willing to let go.
Each of these plays - set in familiar Ayckbourn surroundings of dining rooms, bedrooms and gardens - subvert our expectations because normal people are faced with an element beyond ours and their comprehension. This forces them to face the issues that affect and dominate their lives - whether they want to face them or not.
This idea of subverting expectations in this way may appear unusual for the playwright. It’s not. For practically thirty years he has been subverting his plays by bringing an element of the unexpected into more than half his canon.
Ever since he left the suburban household via a river cruise in
Way Upstream, plays such as Woman In Mind, Henceforward…, Body Language, Communicating Doors, A Word From Our Sponsor, Comic Potential, Improbable Fiction and If I Were You among others (and not even counting the family plays) have all introduced an element of the extraordinary into his writing as a means of further exploring the ideas and themes which drive his plays.
In a sense, this isn’t a radical idea or statement. Alan’s plays have always contained an element of subversion. You would be hard pressed to find an Ayckbourn play that doesn’t do something unexpected in either plotting or structure.
Practically all of his plays subvert traditional dramatic expectations. Be it overlapping times and locations in
How The Other Half Loves; the multiple viewpoints of The Norman Conquests and House and Garden; the off-stage settings and characters of Absurd Person Singular (which are also a prominent feature of Haunting Julia and Snake In The Grass); the use of chance or multiple scene possibilities in Sisterly Feelings and Intimate Exchanges. Ultimately, whether Alan is experimenting with structure or employing extraordinary or genre elements in his plays, they are all equally useful tools for the playwright to explore and examine what interests him most: people.
For no matter how subversive the play may be, the core of the writing is always focused on the human element; everything else is secondary to his focus on recognisable people dealing with recognisable problems - be they relationships, love and loss, who and how we love, our inability to communicate or morality in contemporary society. We may be watching a ghost story or a supernatural thriller, but Alan is still confronting and questioning the ideas and themes which permeate plays as diverse as
The Norman Conquests, Absurd Person Singular and A Small Family Business. The universal ideas that have made his plays accessible and popular around the world.
If there is a difference in how his plays have changed from these examples, it can be summed up by the idea that Alan Ayckbourn’s plays were once described as having ordinary things happen to extraordinary people. In his supernatural plays, we now see extraordinary things happening to largely very ordinary people.
The extraordinary characters such as Norman (
The Norman Conquests), Sidney Hopcroft (Absurd Person Singular) and Dennis (Just Between Ourselves) have been replaced by extraordinary situations. The result is still the same: where once extraordinary people acted as catalysts setting events in motion, now it is extraordinary situations and events acting as the same catalyst.
In
Haunting Julia, a play about parenthood and dealing with the loss of a child, the obsessive search for a father is taken to an extreme by the possibility he is being haunted. This extraordinary idea offers the possibility of a meaningful conclusion to Joe Lukin’s search for answers. As a dramatic tool, this is very powerful as it forces Joe to confront with absolute clarity everything which led to his daughter’s death. By introducing the supernatural, the playwright is able to take characters to a place they might normally never go, whilst never breaking the audience’s trust or belief in the characters or their situation.
This latter point is an essential element of these or any of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays. By introducing supernatural or extraordinary elements, the plays move into different genres of writing. The playwright is extremely careful not to let the genre overwhelm the play or become its focus. Whether we are watching
Haunting Julia’s ghost story, the dystopian science fiction vision of Henceforward… or the shifting fantasy worlds of Improbable Fiction, the plays do not become bound by the genre. Most of the time, we simply do not notice the extraordinary elements or the genre, because the writing concentrates on making us believe in and be interested by the characters. Haunting Julia and Snake In The Grass may be powerful ghost stories, but if you were to pick a scene at random, they would read more as plays concerned with relationships and loss, rather than about the supernatural.
Again, this is no different to how Alan writes his ‘ordinary’ plays. Many of these plays contain extremely clever structural devices, yet Alan is careful not to let the audience become obsessed by them. They are the tools used to tell the story; we may be aware of the labyrinth complexities of
Intimate Exchanges, but our attention is never drawn to them. They are there to facilitate the possibilities and potential of the characters and their situations.
No matter what is happening, the writing is always essentially about human nature. The extraordinary merely helps bring the ordinary into sharper focus.
One of the fundamental advantages of introducing the extraordinary into a play is the opportunity it allows to further challenge both the playwright and the audience. By moving a step beyond reality, an opportunity is offered to explore issues that might not be possible in a realistic, contemporary, suburban drama. It is frequently noted how the majority of good science fiction comments on society today; so Alan uses the tools of the genre to explore more difficult or philosophical issues.
Snake In The Grass is essentially looking at abusive parents and how this affects their children. Alan’s intention is always to entertain first and abuse is not a subject that is obviously entertaining. But by couching the subject in the structure of a supernatural thriller, the audience is far more accepting of a subtly woven tale which makes a point about abuse whilst not hammering it home.
Plays such as
Henceforward… offer climaxes unthinkable in a realistic, contemporary setting. Yet in a future where the most humane actions on show are demonstrated by a robot, we are willing to accept a conclusion which implies all the characters die.
The supernatural / extraordinary is a powerful tool which when subtly used can be quite incisive in opening up a play’s ideas and themes. All three supernatural plays deal in some form with closure and the need for characters to move on; the use of the supernatural in each offers that opportunity.
Part of that process is seeing how the characters respond to and cope with extreme situations, opening them up even further as they attempt to deal with something beyond the natural. Hopefully how they use these experiences helps them to resolve what motivates them in the first place and has led them to the circumstances we find them in at the start of the play. When Jill and Mal swap bodies in
If I Were You, the couple are forced to confront all that is wrong with their marriage; how they cope with the extreme ultimately helps them move forward in their day-to-day lives and relationships. Jill is able to deal with Mal’s affair and Mal able to finally appreciate his son’s talents and have an unblinkered view of his daughter’s abusive husband.
On paper, this may extraordinary and even unbelievable, but Alan Ayckbourn continues to do now what has done since the start of his writing career. By subverting expectations, by taking an unexpected perspective of life, he is further exploring everyday people and their relationships. Although they may seem poles apart, the use of time-travel in
Communicating Doors is really no different to having time run in three different directions in the dramatic structure of Time Of My Life. The story of one is extraordinary, the other ordinary, but both deal with the important moments of our lives and the decisions which affect the courses they take.
By introducing ghosts into suburbia in his supernatural plays, Alan Ayckbourn is making us look at the familiar in an unfamiliar way. The ghosts are far less important than the living; they may scare us, but what happens to the living as a result is what fascinates us.

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