House & Garden: Articles

This section features articles on House & Garden by Alan Ayckbourn and other authors. Click on the link in the right hand column below to go to the relevant article.

This article was written by Alan Ayckbourn's biographer, Paul Allen, for the London premiere of House & Garden at the National Theatre during 2000.

The Middle Of The Ring

The first play by Alan Ayckbourn to be seen at the National Theatre was Bedroom Farce in 1977. It followed a long courtship by the NT's then Director, Peter Hall, which included a memorable line to the effect: "You may be able to do without the National Theatre but can the National Theatre do without you?"

Memorable, persuasive, indeed not much short of moral blackmail to a man making a bob or two out of the commercial theatre but with his own roots in the subsidised sector. You will hear a very similar line in
House from the egregious Gavin Ryng-Mayne. What this does not of course mean is that the benignly manipulative Sir Peter is in any way a model for the Machiavellian party fixer. Who is?

After the Scarborough production, one theatre-goer suggested to Ayckbourn that it was Peter Mandelson, but such a narrowly specific inspiration would have been disappointing. Ayckbourn has always been generous and impartial in his dislike of party politics. He told a German interviewer in the year of the last General Election that it was becoming impossible to find a difference between the two principal parties; both were obsessed with the level of taxation and were letting the country's infrastructure crumble away. He regretted, some people will be surprised to learn, the absence of a radical Left. The only time he has ever voted, it was for a non-party independent he knew personally but who would have been very unlikely to do anything much in the Ayckbourn interest.

If we were to identify Ryng-Mayne with current political figures at all, we should at the very least see Mandelson mixed with Jeffrey Archer. But Peter Hall's line owed something to President John F Kennedy's famous call to his fellow Americans in 1961: "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country." And the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations dryly points out: "Not the first use of this form of words." There was something very like it in the funeral oration of the American Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittler in 1892.

Like anyone else who has worked for the BBC, I was transfixed by the name of the smooth-talking Ryng-Mayne. The ring-main is the internal broadcasting device, piped to every office in every far-flung production centre, through which top BBC management can explain its decisions to the troops. Far be it from me to describe it as an instrument of propaganda, of course, but 'spin' wasn't invented only last week. Ayckbourn worked for the BBC as a producer in the 1960s. We are dealing with an ancient tradition here, that of people with power needing to make sure you, not they, do the dirty work.

House is to do with politics. Now that Ayckbourn writes his plays in advance of their production, instead of posting them through actors' letterboxes at 4am before the Monday morning read-through, his titles do refer specifically to the plays they name. And the allusion to parliament as well as to the Platt family dwelling is quite deliberate.

But it also goes with
Garden and another Ayckbourn preoccupation, the way the middle classes start to discover their more embarrassing appetites when touched by the great god Pan out of doors; there is a fine satyr lurking in this particular meadow in the shape of Warn Coucher. That name must mean something too.

It is in
Round & Round the Garden that Sarah - bossy, obsessional, nervy, vulnerable Sarah - very nearly gives in to the shameless Norman in The Norman Conquests. It is in the sorry strip of unmown grass between the house and the recreation ground in Time & Time Again that another feckless destroyer, Leonard, almost carries off the fiancée of another man. But the most riotous garden (and garden party) scene is the fourth of five interlinked one-act plays that make up Confusions. In Gosforth's Fête a cub leader discovers his fiancée is pregnant by another man when the news is broadcast over the erratically functioning public address system. His cubs climb the rickety scaffolding towards the loudspeakers and fall off, provoking the announcement: "Hadforth Band! There are wolf cubs on the ground requiring minor medical attention. Please be very careful where you march!" And it all gets wilder still when there is also water about.

But as you would expect, Ayckbourn's reason for writing
House & Garden was not just the theme of either play.

Two years after opening the warmly welcoming new Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough (with Malcolm Sinclair in the title role in
By Jeeves.) Ayckbourn found himself with too little annual subsidy to produce as much work as he had in the middle floor of the old secondary school which had been the theatre's previous home. This was of course the natural result of government policy which let subsidy for production wither and die while pots of money became available for handsome new buildings and there is not a theatre or arts institution) in Britain that isn't still suffering from the results today.

Ayckbourn - and this may surprise some people too - used to do a bit of boxing at school at Haileybury, once getting his nose broken by a contemporary who got past that long reach; the gym where it happened is now a theatre named after him. As a boxer he learned the adage that he would in later life repeat to producers who showed a temporary lack of stomach for the fight: "If you are in a corner, the only way forward is the middle of the ring."

Feeling in his bones by 1998 that what his theatre needed was a big affirmative event, he came up with
House & Garden, never quite announcing it to his production department but slipping it into the middle of another conversation, as is his custom.

Nobody resigned, and the job of getting two sets built simultaneously, and two Deputy Stage Managers primed to run the shows in constant radio communication with each other while an actor who had recently undergone heart surgery dashed from one stage to another, got underway.

The stopwatch co-ordination - which was only disrupted in Scarborough if one audience indulged in howls of delaying laughter while the other sat in alert but silent concentration - of writing and production are a masterpiece of ingenuity, there to be relished. There is enjoyment in watching the author - who began his career acting in the repertoire of the 1950s - indulge himself with the joke of somebody coming in through the French windows who is in fact French.

There is also an insight into the way a different light may be cast on characters in a new environment, with the way people at the dramatic centre of their own lives are seen to be tangential to the lives of others.

But the affirmation lies in the conjunction and contrast of behaviour indoors, where people are formal, even icy, always on the lookout for advantage, in short political, with the comparative innocence and openness and even abandon of outdoors.

Each play is funny, and everyone has a view as to which is funnier and which you should see first. Believe me, it doesn't matter. But remember that Ayckbourn's last appearance at the National was as the adapter of Ostrovsky's
The Forest, a play which seems to me to say that actors may be self-regarding, posturing gamblers who will eat and drink you out of house and home but at least they enjoy life and will share their last crust if it really comes to it, in sharp contrast to the bourgeoisie.

House, I suggest, is politics, administration, management, formality, planning. Garden is theatre, play. Nobody has yet quite worked out how to have one without the other.

© Paul Allen, July 2000

Copyright: Paul Allen. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.