House & Garden: Background

In 1999, Alan Ayckbourn celebrated his 60th birthday with an extraordinary production at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. Previously, Alan had written the epic two-part play The Revengers’ Comedies to mark his 50th birthday, but this would pale in comparison to the ambition of his new proposal.

This would again involve two plays, but performed simultaneously in the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s two auditoria. Both plays would involve the same cast who would move between auditoria so everything that was off-stage in one play was on-stage in another; an exit from one theatre was an entrance in the other. This play was called
House & Garden and it 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 this idea mutated into the basis for the equally ground-breaking The Norman Conquests (see Behind the Scenes). But, as frequently occurs with Alan, the idea was stored away for another time.

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 the celebration and he had realised 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.

Some critics felt that
House & Garden was purely a technical exercise lacking the depth of previous works, but the more perceptive observers realised this 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.

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.

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.

Again the response was extraordinary, particularly as the National expanded the Fête idea even more than Scarborough. 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. 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 is classic Ayckbourn in both its themes and the way it offers an original idea and challenge for theatre.

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without the permission of the copyright holder.