House & Garden: History

In 1999, Alan Ayckbourn celebrated his 60th birthday with an extraordinary production at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. He would write not one, but two plays - House & Garden - which would prove to be his most ambitious work yet.
Behind The Scene: Early Inspiration
Although Alan Ayckbourn wrote
House & Garden in 1999, he actually had the idea for two plays being performed simultaneously in the early 1970s - predating The Norman Conquests. In an interview in 1975, Alan Ayckbourn recalls being asked twice on the same day in 1972 if he would write plays for the recently opened Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. Realising the theatre had two auditoria, he postulated he could have two plays running simultaneously with the same cast. In an interview from the previous year, the same story is recalled by the director Eric Thompson, who believed that Alan adapted this idea for Scarborough as one of the inspirations for The Norman Conquests. In an interview with OK in 1994, Alan Ayckbourn noted he intended to write a play running in two auditoria simultaneously for the then unbuilt Stephen Joseph Theatre.
For his 50th birthday, Alan had written the epic two-part play The Revengers’ Comedies, but this would pale in comparison next to the challenges posed by House & Garden. For this would involve two plays performed simultaneously in the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s two auditoria with the same cast moving between them; as a result, everything that was off-stage in one play was on-stage in another - an exit from one theatre was an entrance to the other. House & Garden was not only one of the most ambitious pieces ever staged in the playwright's home theatre, but it also became one of the most talked-about theatre events in the UK between 1999 and 2000.

The seed of the idea that became
House & Garden actually came to Alan more than 25 years earlier, when he conceived of a plan to write two plays running simultaneously for the recently opened Sheffield Crucible, but he modified the idea as the basis for his equally ground-breaking trilogy The Norman Conquests (three plays which show the events of a single weekend from the perspective of three different locations). As frequently occurs with Alan, the initial idea was stored away for another time - in this case, a quarter of a century!

If there was any particular inspiration to write the plays, other than the fact Alan wanted to create an ambitious piece of event theatre for his 60th birthday alongside the realisation his earlier grand idea was possible in this venue, it was the idea of how we perceive people in our lives. Alan was experimenting with the idea that 'we're all walk-on players in other people's lives.' We may be centre-stage to some people such as our families, but to other people, we’re less important.
House & Garden explores this, playing with the audience’s perceptions: in Garden, Trish makes a brief, angry appearance and Gavin comes across well. In House, we sympathise with Trish as we understand her behaviour and come to loathe the manipulative and devious Gavin.
Behind The Scene: Naming Gavin
Gavin Ring-Mayne's unusual name is apparently a reference to Alan Ayckbourn's career as a radio producer for the BBC from 1965 to 1970. Paul Allen noted in the National Theatre's programme, the Ring-Main was an internal broadcasting device linked to every office at the BBC through which announcements would be made.
It also arguably presented a chance for the playwright to explore some of his favourite themes in a new way. Whilst some critics felt that House & Garden was purely a technical exercise lacking the depth of previous works, more perceptive observers realised it is possibly one of Alan’s most ambitious works on his most frequently recurring themes of love, relationships and marriage. For all its humour, House & Garden is a very bleak play, in which the traumatic possibilities of love are explored and the states of marriage and its effects on relationships are brutally revealed. There are three separations within the course of the plays and numerous people left damaged by their emotional attachments. The plays also recall many of Ayckbourn’s earlier works, whether just as reference or picking up ideas and exploring them in a different context.
Behind The Scenes: Wedding Present
The original production at the Stephen Joseph Theatre was notable for having the award-winning French actress Sabine Azéma playing Lucille. This was as the result of the French film auteur Alain Resnais marrying Sabine in Scarborough (with Alan and his wife as witnesses) and Alan asking Sabine what she would like as a present; a part in one of your plays was her reply. Alan wrote the French-speaking role for her.
The writing process was unusual for the two plays as Alan had to write them simultaneously scene-by-scene. It is imperative for the plays to run smoothly that each scene ends at the same time, that actors moving from one space to the next do so at the correct time and Alan had to work carefully to make sure the technicalities were in place to achieve this, whilst creating interesting and coherent plays. It was also important to Alan that the plays stand up independently of each other; whilst the intention is audiences should see both parts of House & Garden to gain full enjoyment, Alan was adamant both plays had to offer satisfactory experiences in their own rights, much as he had previously done with The Norman Conquests.

The original Scarborough production also introduced the ‘third play’ which saw the boundaries between on and off-stage action reduced even further, when cast and crew manned stalls in the foyer for the Fête which is a key feature of the plays. The post-show Fête made it even more of a community event with audiences mingling with the very same people they had been watching.
Behind The Scenes: Fêted
Alan Ayckbourn genuinely believed House & Garden would not be picked up by other theatres because of its challenges.
When the National Theatre decided to stage it, Alan has said he believed what clinched it was Artistic Director Trevor Nunn's visit to the final Scarborough performance and being 'swept away' by the Fête; he was apparently particularly keen on the 'human fruit machine'!
The plays opened in June 1999 and had already garnered an impressive amount of press coverage. The response was exceptional with houses more than 90% full for the entire run and critics generally having nothing but praise for the plays - although House tended to be viewed as the stronger of the two plays. Unusually, several critics clamoured in their reviews for the plays to open in London, several suggesting it was the perfect piece to open the new Royal Court development and others suggesting the National Theatre.

Alan had always felt the plays would not transfer from Scarborough; believing they were too complex and too few venues could stage them. He was wrong. Trevor Nunn, artistic director of the National Theatre, came to Scarborough to see the plays and subsequently approached Alan, offering him the venue’s two largest spaces: the Olivier and the Lyttleton. Alan grasped the challenge and began making slight alterations to the plays as the distance between the two venues in the National was almost three minutes - practically double that of the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
Behind The Scenes: The Emergency Dog
The National Theatre production raised a new challenge as there was a considerably further distance between the two auditoria than there had been in Scarborough; 37 seconds in Scarborough, more than two minutes in London.
To address this and the possibility of a delayed entrance, Alan created the 'emergency dog'. If an actor was late to the stage, barking from Teddy's dog - Spoof - would be played, alerting the actors on stage to deliver additional dialogue to cover the gap. Fortunately the 'Emergency Dog' was never utilised during the National Theatre's run.
Apparently, David Haig was also written a 'speech' for the National Theatre production, which he could drop in if necessary, in which he mused on his opening speech as a newly installed MP.
Of course, alterations were not quite so simple as one might find in any other plays. If Alan added 30 seconds of dfasilogue to one play or trimmed a minute from another, he had to make the equivalent alterations to the other play to ensure they continued to match up!

Again the response was extraordinary, particularly as the National expanded the Fête idea even more than Scarborough with the show practically taking over the entirety of the National Theatre's voluminous foyer complete with beer tent and hustings. While some people bemoaned the fact the National was practically being taken over by Ayckbourn, it was not generally realised the venue had financial problems and Nunn later revealed the incredible success of
House & Garden had been key to staving off those problems.

The plays were published by Faber to coincide with the London premiere of
House & Garden at the National Theatre in 2000 and Samuel French published an acting edition (slightly altered to reflect the alterations for the London production) in 2003. Faber reprinted the plays in 2011 in the collected edition Alan Ayckbourn: Plays 4.

House & Garden has proved remarkably resilient in the years since. Contrary to what Alan believed, House & Garden has become a popular staple of both professional and amateur companies. The plays were - unusually - quickly picked up for and produced in America with the Goodman Theater in Chicago presenting the American premiere in 2001 with the Manhattan Theatre Club presenting the New York premiere in 2002. House & Garden is also the first play that it is know Alan Ayckbourn agreed to a commercial endorsement! When Salisbury Playhouse staged the work during 2004, the theatre had a sponsorship deal with Volkswagen and asked whether one word could be altered near the end of Garden to say 'Golf' instead of the more generic 'car. Alan agreed as a one off, given it made no impact on the play and was helping a regional theatre.
Behind The Scenes: MP or NT?
House, there is a key moment when Gavin Ring-Mayne asks Teddy Platt to be a candidate for MP: "You can do perfectly well with this Government but ask yourself this, can the Government do without you?" The line is actually inspired by one that Sir Peter Hall gave to Alan in 1975 regarding commissioning him for the National Theatre: 'Alan, you can well do without the National Theatre but ask yourself this. Can the National Theatre do without you?'
The challenges the plays present have led to considerable invention on theatres' parts with performances in theatres across the road from each other, in theatres with makeshift tent pavilions erected next to them and in one case on a single stage split in half.

House & Garden may have been conceived as a birthday treat and a challenge to the playwright to create a piece of event theatre which celebrated the 'liveness' of the theatrical experience, it can now be recognised as something far more interesting within the Ayckbourn canon. It is arguably a classic Ayckbourn work in both its themes, its original and daring structure and in the way it explores Alan Ayckbourn's perpetual quest of exploring how the 'liveness' of theatre is what makes the drastic arts unique.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.
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