Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices.
Week 16: Alan Ayckbourn’s Time and Time Again (1971)
Alan Ayckbourn is the UK’s most popular living writer. His 80th play premieres in Scarborough this summer and there is even a theatre company by the name of Dick and Lottie dedicated to his work. What’s more is that his work is exceptionally popular with amateur theatres. From 1987 to 2013, there were 807 productions of Ayckbourn’s plays in theatres that are part of the Little Theatre Guild, beating the 703 productions of Shakespeare’s plays. And yet there seems to be an aversion to Ayckbourn. There’s a suggestion, perhaps, that his plays might pander to middle age audiences.
I have experience of this first hand. As part of a production planning team at a theatre with a fervent dedication to Ayckbourn, we at times questioned the enduring popularity of the playwright especially after the odd dud production of one of his plays. Although we always aspire to produce a varied season of plays, we are also aware that we need to produce plays which bring in an audience. Ayckbourn’s plays, we have found, have nearly consistently achieved attendance rates of over 95% over the past decade, and so when putting together a season, we tend to include an Ayckbourn as one of the more popular plays in addition to some more ‘challenging’ plays. But does that not mean an Ayckbourn play can’t be challenging? Certainly, many offer technical challenges, including a swimming pool being needed for Man of the Moment, and body suits required for Body Language as so to give the effect that a rotund person and a thin person have switched bodies. The plays also pose significant challenges to the actors. The dialogue is often dense on the page and shorter lines are more common than monologues which can make picking up cues more difficult. And, I would argue, the plays often pose challenges to the audience too.
Time and Time Again is sneakily clever. Getting into it, it seems that all of the characters are tightly wound, they suppress their sexual desires and it takes half a page of dialogue to discuss how they like their tea or what the weather’s doing. The dialogue and the characters are everyday and the setting – a garden and conservatory backing onto some playing fields – is domestic. Audiences might well be able to easily relate to the goings on in the play. But then, characters behave in ways which you don’t expect characters to in these kind of plays. The inadequate, unconfident middle aged divorcee (Leonard) starts dating the younger, more confident Joan, and yet he is still able to have a laugh with her ex-boyfriend with supposed anger issues. Meanwhile, the grumpy, slightly envious, cocky, old-fashioned Graham watches over Leonard’s new-found prowess incredulously.
It doesn’t quite reach the peaks of farce as some other Ayckbourn plays might although the climax of act one of Leonard and Joan splashing about in the pond is nicely written. And, unlike some of his plays, Time and Time Again seems to be more character-driven than plot-driven and it’s interesting to see how characters change in the weeks between the scenes. Furthermore, Ayckbourn is often linked to Chekhov and Shakespeare in his understanding of human nature, but there’s a more concrete link to Chekhov here in that both Leonard in this play and Vanya in Uncle Vanya are apathetic protagonists who have surprising effects on those around them.
Ayckbourn, then, finds comedy in middle class lives in Time and Time Again. But there are darker ways of looking at the play: it’s a story of three men’s attraction to the same woman, Joan, whilst subdued housewife Anna (whose biggest excitement is choosing Battenberg cake for a change instead of Dundee cake) merely looks on; its portrayal of suburban tedium; its hint at midlife crises. Instead of pandering to audiences, staging plays with middle class characters and issues to largely middle class audiences can perhaps, to paraphrase that less popular playwright (!), hold a mirror up to nature.