WHEN the Coronavirus pandemic decreed Truth Will Out would not be out this summer in Scarborough, Alan Ayckbourn responded by unlocking a new play in lockdown, Anno Domino.
Not only has he written it, but he is performing in the audio recording too, marking his return to acting, 58 years after his last appearance on a professional stage, no less.
What’s more, the 81-year-old playwright has teamed up with his wife, actress Heather Stoney, his co-star in that 1964 production, to record the new show, his 84th play.
Billed as a Stephen Joseph Theatre production, the world premiere of Anno Domino will be streaming for free exclusively on the SJT’s website, sjt.uk.com, from noon on Monday (May 25) to noon on June 25.
Ayckbourn had been due to direct the world premiere of Truth Will Out, from August 20 to October 3, alongside his revival of his 1976 garage-and-garden dark comedy of four birthdays, Just Between Ourselves, in an SJT summer season completed by artistic director Paul Robinson’s production of The Ladykillers.
However, once the SJT’s summer was scuppered by the Corona crisis, former radio producer Ayckbourn and Robinson hatched a plan to create a play that Ayckbourn and Stoney could record and present online.
Hey presto, Anno Domino, Ayckbourn’s audio account of the break-up of a long-established marriage and the domino effect that has on family and friends.
“The inspiration for Anno Domino came from the idea that all relationships ultimately, however resilient they appear to be, are built on sand!” says Ayckbourn. “And it only takes one couple to break up abruptly to take us all by surprise, then all of a sudden everyone is questioning their own unshakeable relationship.”
Anno Domino marks the first time Ayckbourn has both directed and starred in one of his own plays, even providing the sound effects too. Performed by Ayckbourn and Stoney, with a final mix by Paul Steer, it requires the duo to play four characters each, with an age range of 18 to mid-70s: Ayckbourn adjusting the pitch of his voice to denote Ben, Sam, Craig and Raz; Stoney, likewise, for Ella, Milly, Martha and Cinny.
This SJT audio recording is the first occasion they have acted together since Ayckbourn’s stage exit left in William Gibson’s two-hander Two For The Seesaw at the Rotherham Civic Theatre in 1964.
Ayckbourn subsequently has pursued a prolific, glittering writing and directing career, all the way to Olivier Award and Tony Award success and a knighthood; Stoney continued to act, appearing in many Ayckbourn world premieres. Her last full season as an actress was at the SJT in 1985, when she appeared in the world premiere of Ayckbourn’s Woman In Mind.
Now they renew their performing partnership, enjoying “just mucking about in our sitting room,” as Ayckbourn put it.
Here Charles Hutchinson puts questions to writer, director, sound-effects foley artist and performer in lockdown, Alan Ayckbourn
What prompted you to respond to such dark times with a “lighter” piece?
“It was written long before this virus decided to rear its ugly head! Actually, before the SJT new play Truth Will Out. But the latter was an altogether darker piece and was concerned with another type of virus, a virulent computer virus, though, which brings the country to a standstill. A type of doomsday scenario piece and perhaps not too cheering in these darker days.
“Still, I nearly predicted it correctly – I just got the wrong virus. Anno Domino, though, is altogether lighter and more optimistic. (Though, knowing me, it still has its dark corners!)
You are well accustomed to the discipline of working in isolation, but has it been in any way different under the present circumstances?
“No, the past couple of months has been no different to any other year, really. Though the past few days, I have suddenly felt the difference as this was the week when I was scheduled to start for this season’s AA revival, Just Between Ourselves, which I had not directed since I premiered it back in the ’70s in our first home at The Library Theatre. I was really looking forward to revisiting that.”
There’s ring rusty and then there’s you returning to performing after 56 years! How’s the “muscle memory” after all those years?!
“Well, I’ve been writing and directing throughout the intervening years. When I’m writing, I tend to say everything out loud, in character; when directing, I tend to say everything silently, under my breath but, of course, NEVER out loud! Most off-putting that would be for the actors, poor things.”
What do you recall of your last stage appearance in 1964, again with Heather and again in a two-hander?
“It was a production of an American two-hander by William Gibson, in which we were both totally unsuitable. I played, whilst still in my twenties, a middle-aged businessman from Omaha, Nebraska, originally played by Henry Fonda. Heather did her version of Anne Bancroft’s performance as a young Jewish dancer from the Bronx. Hallo and goodnight Rotherham, Yorkshire!”
What are the plus points of an audio recording, as opposed to a stage performance? What possibilities does it open up?
“Interestingly, audio and in-the-round stage performance are very similar. People always say with radio plays, that they enjoy them ‘because they ask you to use your imagination’. People say similar things when watching plays in-the-round. The only difference is that audio has no pictures!”
Any thoughts on what may now happen to Truth Will Out?
“I do hope it won’t get lost or forgotten. The SJT have agreed that this was merely a postponement. Shame to lose it as it’s a lot of fun. Watch this space, as they say.”
Lastly, how would you interpret the instruction to Stay Alert?
“Keep your eyes peeled, your head down and look both ways before sneezing!”