ON Tuesday, playwright Alan Ayckbourn returned to his empty, dark, silent rehearsal room next door for the first time since September 2019.
After months and months of work, restlessness but no live play, the Scarborough knight is back where he feels most at home: directing a new Ayckbourn work, The Girl Next Door, from the rehearsal studio in his Longwestgate abode.
“My spirit in lockdown had begun to pall, especially in this one, as I’ve had no springboard for my work,” he says. “Like everyone else, I decided to keep busy at all costs: I wrote play after play, four actually, but they just lay there, unexplored, neglected, unfulfilled, because I had no feedback from actors or audiences of course, so I couldn’t move forward.
“I was parked on the runway, seeing where I might fly off to next.” The permission for take-off has now been granted: The Girl Next Door, 82-year-old Sir Alan’s 85th premiere, will open in The Round at his beloved Stephen Joseph Theatre, where he is Director Emeritus after 37 years as artistic director from 1972 to 2009.
“I wrote it back in spring 2020. I like to think of it as a lockdown love story,” he says of his touching, tender and humorous reflection on the ability of love to rise above adversity and reach across the years.
Sir Alan, who turned 82 on April 12, had experienced the frustration of his 2020 world premiere of Truth Will Out, ironically a prescient play about a virus, albeit of the computer variety, being knocked into the long grass by the first lockdown as the SJT lay dormant from March 17.
For all his unstinting productivity – not only the four plays but also audio-stream recordings of the previously unproduced Anno Domino and a Christmas revival of his ghost play Haunting Julia – Sir Alan has been itching to intereact with actors again.
“Just go for it,” he said as he anticipated Tuesday’s first session. “I’ve been counting down the days to when we start rehearsals just after the Bank Holiday.
“All I can say is, we will be ready! The theatre has been terrific in that respect, so supportive; the play being confirmed for the summer in January; one production meeting; auditions on Zoom, even if the reality with Zoom is there’s always a beat between what they say and what you hear, so it just sounds flat. All we need now is for Boris to panic.”
Panic not. Let’s stay positive and eagerly await The Girl Next Door, a play Sir Alan set about writing as soon as he finished work on Anno Domino in early May and completed by late-May in the best Ayckbourn tradition of quick work.
The play is a four-hander, as Ayckbourn adapted to Covid times when large casts are not viable for the foreseeable future in this new age of social bubbles, and the setting is two neighbouring houses on the same London street during August 2020.
“But all is not as it seems,” he says. It never is in a play by a playwright who loves playing with time. Here he populates one house with actor Rob Hathaway, 60, and his sister, Alex, 62, a government financial advisor. In the other are the Tindles, soldier Alf, 26, and wife Lily, 24.
“The opening image is Rob seeing the young woman putting washing on the line and in his mind he’s thinking, ‘she has no right to be there’ because the couple who live next door have chosen to go away to their house in the country in lockdown.”
Without giving too much away, past is meeting present, drawing on Sir Alan’s own childhood experiences in London in the Second World War.
“I felt that spirit of optimism as I wrote it because the country needs a bit of optimism right now,” he says. “The last thing anyone wants to watch is someone saying ‘there’s no more hope, folks’.
“So writing the play, it was my life meeting me coming back, because my first memories were of lockdown in wartime, sheltering under the beds, waiting for the bombs to drop. Now we’re sheltering at home, waiting for the germs to land.
“It’s interesting that the parallels are there, though I don’t want to rub them in, so all I can say is, ‘don’t worry, folks, we’ve been here before; the world won’t end’, though many feared it was in wartime.”
Ayckbourn was born in April 1939. “So I have these images of being on my mother’s lap down in the tube station, not wanting to wake her up, and she not wanting to disturb me,” he says.
“I remember the shelters that were great for children, and you could play under the kitchen table, so it was quite a time – and then there was my Mickey Mouse gas mark, with the big mouse ears, which they gave out to children as standard issue. They were like something Stephen King would have been proud of.”
Ayckbourn enjoys playing with the two eras separated by 80 years. “It’s fun to do; there’s a sort of selective release of information where the art is to make the audience feel secure, with a level playing field, but then you hopefully stay slightly ahead of them, trying to get them to second guess you!” he says.
Alan Ayckbourn’s The Girl Next Door will run at a socially distanced, Covid-secure Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, from June 4 to July 3. Box office: sjt.uk.com.
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