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the Complete Review
the complete review - interview

Conversations with Ayckbourn

Ian Watson

general information | our review | links | about the author

Title: Conversations with Ayckbourn
Author: Ian Watson
Genre: Interview
Written: 1981/1988
Length: 204 pages
Availability: Conversations with Ayckbourn is currently out of print
  • Conversations with Ayckbourn was first published in 1981.
  • With an introduction by Ian Watson.
  • This review refers to the revised edition, published in 1988, which does not include the chapter entitled "Frenetic '80" but instead has two new conversations from 1987.
  • Includes a chronology and an Appendix of synopses of Ayckbourn's plays (to 1988)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : informative, entertaining conversations

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Conversations with Ayckbourn offers leisurely but not too rambling conversation, with Ian Watson gently leading Ayckbourn to a quite full chronological account of his life and career (to 1988). Watson has worked with Ayckbourn and is familiar with many of the figures close to Ayckbourn, as well as the English theatre scene of these years, making him a good guide -- an insider who has a good feel for what additional information readers might require. Smoothly edited, there is a nice give and take here, with Ayckbourn allowed long answers where necessary, and Watson steering conversation in all the right directions.
       Parents, childhood, and schooling are quickly dealt with, but offer an interesting glimpse into those influences in Ayckbourn's life -- the school, for example, Haileybury, which Ayckbourn explains was "run down while I was there", leaving a mere five students there for his (and the school's) last term.
       Ayckbourn's early intense theatrical apprenticeship is impressive, if dizzying. His enthusiasm is remarkable, and his varied experiences entertaining (while never getting too bogged down in nostalgic and purely theatrical reminiscence).
       Stephen Joseph was an early mentor, and the two conversationalists offer a good introduction to his significant contributions to the theatre -- while maintaining enough focus on Ayckbourn's own (and occasional very different) approaches. The strong-willed and ambitious Joseph certainly seems to have influenced Ayckbourn in most of the right ways, making it easier for him to experiment in ways that more traditionally (theatrically) educated playwrights may have more trouble with -- including being far more hands on in the experimentation instead of merely cerebral, and always looking beyond the mere words of the text and considering the entire range of theatrical possibilities (what can be done with stage, scenery, lighting, acting, etc.).
       There are amusing non-theatrical anecdotes -- Ayckbourn's National Service stint, for example -- but it's the theatre-experiences, and Ayckbourn's advancement from all-around stage-hand and actor to leading playwright that is of greatest interest. Parts of this -- especially the early years -- are treated rather quickly, some of the plays a mere passing blur, but the conversation slows around some of them (especially in the two 1987 pieces) and provides more insight into Ayckbourn's doings.
       From his American experiences -- including those in the bizarre play-world of Houston -- to his year at the National Theatre, and his long-term affiliation with Scarborough Ayckbourn also describes different working environments and the consequences and benefits he found in each -- accounts also always peppered with amusing anecdotes. The infamous Way Upstream disaster is particularly memorable: it's a play performed in a boat, actually floating in a tank of water (which he'd pulled off both in Scarborough and in Houston), but at the National ... well, the boat didn't sink, but the tank burst, flooding the whole complex and causing great damage and inconvenience.
       There's interesting insight strewn all throughout, and even the simpler observations are nicely expressed:

AA: Both the Olivier and the Lyttelton need strong narrative.
IW: It's not bad for any theatre, is it ?
AA: No, it's a jolly good principle. But you can get away with a bit of mood down in the Cottesloe: you know, you can have people in armchairs. In the other two, you really do need to keep it banging along with 'I wonder what's going to happen next.'
       A bit more personal detail would have been welcome -- about his family and his non-professional relationships, for example (though Ayckbourn appears so completely theatre-obsessed that one sometimes wonders whether he really has any contact with the non-theatrical world). But at least his play-writing approach -- complete immersion in the writing, for a very short period of time, usually under great time pressure -- is explained at some lengths.
       Conversations with Ayckbourn also includes a useful Ayckbourn-chronology (to 1988), as well as an appendix that provides brief synopses of Ayckbourn's plays (to 1988) -- which, despite fitting as many as four (and never less than one) play per page, takes up twenty-five pages. The appendix, especially, is a useful quick reference, but the entire book can certainly be recommended: it's very entertaining and quite informative, and given how little biographical information about Ayckbourn is readily accessible it is particularly welcome.
       In the preface to the second (1988) edition Watson writes that it is unlikely that there will be any further updating of these conversations. Watson quotes Ayckbourn as writing: 'I rather enjoy being the least documented playwright of the twentieth century.' It's too bad: documentation of this sort we would certainly enjoy more of.

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Alan Ayckbourn: Books by Alan Ayckbourn under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Drama under review

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About the Author:

       British author Ian Watson was born in 1942.

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© 2003-2009 the complete review

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