Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present: Interview with Alan Ayckbourn

This interview with Alan Ayckbourn was conducted by the playwright's Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd, on 3 April 2019.

What were your thoughts when writing Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present?
It’s no coincidence that this is a special birthday year - being my 80th, so birthdays were uppermost in my mind! I’ve sort of been over that ground with plays like Just Between Ourselves - which just happened to be set during people’s birthdays but it wasn’t central to the plot. I thought for the new play it’s a bit conventional to have one person - the central character - maybe having his 20th birthday and 50th and then 80th birthdays; which anyway requires an incredible amount of make-up and possibly a very complicated set. Then I thought, we might do better to do it backwards. I think there’s some little vestige of a comment I made many years ago to a journalist when they asked me what I wanted to write next and would it be a farce? I said, well, if it is a farce, it’ll be backwards and probably called Ecraf - which is Farce backwards. I think this is the nearest I’ve got to writing Ecraf.

Can you tell us a bit about the play?
It’s a fun piece. Well, it starts at the end and then goes backwards. We retrace the steps to what on earth made a certain surprising event happen! We keep along the trail, as it were, as - hopefully - the audience will want to know the cause of all this. We usually see the cause first and the effects follow on, but in this case, we see the effects first and the first question after that scene is, just how did we get here? And the scene that follows is, in effect, a little bit earlier in time. We start with Micky, the father’s 80th birthday, then the mother’s 60th birthday, then the son’s 30th birthday and, because it’s a conventional family of four, we expect to see the daughter’s birthday. In fact, it is the daughter’s 18th birthday, but we never see her as she’s off-stage although she is a rather strong character, who has a profound influence on our hero, Adrian.

Who is presumably who the play revolves around?
It’s really a story about a man who’s trying to deal with women; it’s sort of a companion piece to A Brief History Of Women, only Adrian finishes up at the very beginning saying, ‘I’ll never understand women’ and - as we know from the entire evening - he never does! He’s thwarted either by circumstances entirely beyond his control or by dint of his parents interfering and raising people’s expectations of him in a way that parents never should do with their children - especially his father.
Adrian is really my archetypal anti-hero in that he is not the cause of anything. He’s buffeted by events over which he has no control at all. I think I’m very fond of Adrian because he is just, essentially, quite a dull fellow. he does the same job from beginning to end. He has dreams of being an astrophysicist, which all fizzles, out in very quick order. He ends up bookkeeping for the local department store, which he stays in until he gets his gold watch at the end of it. He’s a bit like my suburban man revisited - as I am wont to do - as I am very fond of these characters right back to Leonard in Time And Time Again; who does nothing really except cause havoc by doing nothing. I’m always fascinated by people who create such vacuums and other people zooming around being busy, busy, busy while he’s causing more trouble simple by being in this state of inertia. People can’t bear to see other people not doing things, so they think we must help them out, all with the best intentions.
There are also on-stage and off-stage characters like his sister and his Uncle Hal - who is a rather dark relative. He’s one of those dodgy, Don Juan uncles who thinks Adrian’s love-life needs a bit of gingering up - the way uncles do! They don’t have full responsibility for the child, they have a distant responsibility and leave the parents to clean up after them.

What type of play is it?
I didn’t really set out to write a funny, ha-ha play, but I thought I’m running quite a dark seam at the moment and last year’s play - Better Off Dead - was heading that way, although it has its lighter moments. I thought, I’m not writing myself into the darkness of my twilight years, I’ll just lighten the lamp on the way. So this is a throwback to earlier days. I’ve written three other plays that are considerably darker than this. I have an embarrassment of riches at the moment, but I think this is the right play for this year.

How difficult was the structure to write?
It is quite tricky to write backwards. Also there are one or two major events that get referred to and then we catch up with them later or earlier as it were - later in the evening but earlier in the narrative, so what happened in the cupboard is kept very quiet until the last minute. It’s quite fun trying to plant evidence of things happening before they’ve happened, as it were. I’ve always played with time and I suspect Pinter - who is not here to correct me - just as likely got the idea of Betrayal because of my portrayal of time or Priestley’s portrayal of time, because it was all around him and he probably thought, ‘I’d like to go for this backwards idea.’ Although I’ve been doing it since Time Of My Life, which goes backwards and fast forwards, it’s a boring old cliche to do something in flashback; you know that unless the guy is dying as he says it, he’ll actually live through the entire event so the whole suspense goes out of the entire window. There are dangers in writing backwards, but I suspect it’s probably interesting dramatically because, as I’m fond of saying, quite a lot of playwriting is about the selective release of information and it’s just selectively releasing different information. So how much I tell people is entirely down to me and in a forward narrative that’s fine. You give people enough so we’re all moving in the same direction but if the play is actually moving in a different direction to the audience then it’s more complex. It became a sort of whodunnit really. In most whodunnits, the detective traces back to the beginning - the motive for when the body was found in the library, who decided to do it and who plotted the scheme right back to the beginning. It is sort of based on a detective fiction.

How do you hope the audience will receive the play?
I’m hoping it’ll work for an audience. The nicest thing people can say is, ‘I never expected that!’ or ‘well, you certainly had me fooled.’ In a sense it’s like talking to a conjurer. You didn’t expect to produce the chicken from the egg cup! But the worst thing they can see is, ‘well I saw that coming.' It’s a sort of sleight of hand narrative. Whatever you say and whoever you are, you sit in the audience occasionally and you try and second guess the narrative and you say, ‘I know what’s going to happen’ - but if it’s a good narrative, you’ll then be surprised: ‘Oh, he’s a good guy!’ This is the success of Jed Mercurio because he keeps us guessing. He’s cussedly keeping people second-guessing and one gets very wary of his stuff now because you know the good guy sitting there is probably going to be the bad guy and if he’s being signalled as a bad guy, he’ll turn out to be the good guy! So there is a certain amount of second guessing, which is a dramatist’s stock in trade and one of the secrets of good narrative. Holding back people’s back expectations and confounding people’s expectations of what is going to happen next. It’s quite fun.

Does it have any particular challenges to stage?
This play has four different sets, four different locations - so that helps us a bit because of the time jumps If you’re in the same setting and you race in changing the chair covers, whatever, you nerve quite feel as though the play has moved anywhere. The play ends up in our hero’s bedroom, this teenage bedroom with posters and whatever and his sister’s birthday party going on downstairs and each scene has its own flavour. Ive been talking to Kevin Jenkins who’s designing it and the problem of getting through the narrative quick enough but making the changes dramatic enough without the boring-ness of a completely bare stage and mimed furniture. Of trying to make the story-telling scenic ways as much fun as the play itself. I want to get the feeling we are in motion in the way that A Brief History Of Women took giant 20 year leaps forwards. Kevin was very clever at basically making the same set make different statements, so the luxurious country house transformed into the bleak school into the soulless art school into the plastic luxury of a county house hotel style. All of it’s got to be in the narrative but it’s also got to be in the writing. If id have set it in four hotels, it wouldn’t have been as effective. The choice of set is very important.

Like Joking Apart, it also features several celebrations. What's the appeal of celebrations within plays?
Surprise parties are a double-edged sword unless you know the person very, very well. Why land them with all sorts of people they don’t want to see? Because if you don’t ask them, there’s that sort of ill-disguised look of horror as they look around the room full of people. I’m reminded of an incident which I used as inspiration for A Small Family Business opening scene. With Cheryl Kennedy’s ill-fated birthday party for Tom Courtenay, when he came home with a stinking cold and just wanted to go home to bed and we were all jammed into this tiny room waiting to spring out and say ‘happy birthday, Tom!’ It’s the closest Ive ever been to Albert Finney in my life! Wedged up against him and we could hear the dialogue very clearly through the door and Tom was not in a happy mood and just wanted to go to bed, having just had a terrible show and the audience was awful. He’d got this cold and he was really giving poor Cheryl a hard time and I remember Albert saying, ‘this is going to end in tears.’ And then Cheryl opened the door and we all came out and it wasn’t very full-bloodied. And his face went, ‘oh shit,’ and then he pulled himself together, being Tom, and he went ‘oh!’ and you thought, ‘you don’t mean that at all, poor chap.’ Who are all those people! So you can’t do that. You know that the people you invited want to see you badly even if you don’t, because it’s actually their evening. You have to be very generous, I think Micky is not as generous as that. He’s not the most ‘new man simpatico husband’, he’s an old dog who says the wife’s going to like this.

Interview by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright of Haydonning Ltd, please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.