The Revengers' Comedies: History

In 1989, Alan Ayckbourn celebrated his 50th birthday and decided to mark it with what he announced would be "a bit of an epic.” It is fair to say this was an understatement.

The Revengers' Comedies turned out to be a two part, five hour epic containing more than 20 characters played by 14 actors with a cinematic scope and feel to it. It was a play which was a great success at its premiere in Scarborough but was not a success in London and marked the point at which Alan's troubled relationship with the West End began to definitely alter.

As a child and young man, Alan has been obsessed with cinema (the playwright has frequently noted how his early influences are entirely cinematic as opposed to theatrical) and
The Revengers' Comedies is inspired by this great love of film. It references a great many movies, not least and most obviously the Hitchcock classic Strangers On A Train. The cinematic influence was carried through to the actual production as Alan envisioned a fast-moving play set in London and the countryside with short scenes moving rapidly from one location to the next. If any single play influenced The Revengers' Comedies it was not, as might be assumed, The Revenger's Tragedy - which Alan had not read - but John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's A Whore. Alan had directed this play at the National Theatre and as his first attempt at directing Jacobean drama, he was very impressed by the play and the writing which he has said was a huge influence when writing The Revengers' Comedies.

The technical challenges of the play were a major issue, but aided immeasurably by Alan having his regular London designers Roger Glossop (design) and Mick Hughes (lighting) working together at the
Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, for the first time; between 1989 and 2009 Alan worked with Roger and Mick on the majority of his world premieres. Working in the round on a restrictive budget, they ingeniously solved the demands of the play with a minimum of props, a versatile pulley system for changing locations quickly and a clever use of lighting to suggest place and time. All these combined to convey the needs of the action whilst allowing it to move at the pace it demanded.

The play demanded the largest cast yet to have been assembled for an Ayckbourn production in Scarborough and much effort was put into ensuring the piece was seen as a major - and fun - event for the theatre. A large part of this was the decision to run the play in its entirety on Saturdays with the two parts split by a break for tea, taken picnic-style in the grounds around the venue; the only exception to this was the press night when both plays were presented in a single evening which began at 6pm and ended after midnight, drawing a number of disgruntled comments from critics!

The Revengers' Comedies was a huge success for the theatre and even became an international attraction for the town, generating a wealth of international publicity. It even saw one of North America's most influential critics visit the town, when the notorious New York Times critic Frank Rich, the ‘Butcher of Broadway’, came to see the play and acclaimed it for its vision. Apparently there was a substantial increase in visitors to Scarborough from abroad as a result of this.

Success in Scarborough led to thoughts of transferring the play to London and Alan initially had high hopes the National Theatre would take the play on, as he felt it was possibly the only venue which could successfully deal with the two play format in London. Negotiations took place between Alan and the National's Artistic Director, Richard Eyre, but would stumble on the format of the play. Eyre asked that Alan consider slightly cutting the the two parts so they could be presented in one evening punctuated by a break for dinner (this would have been slightly different to Scarborough where the Saturdays involved a matinee and an evening performance separated by a two and a half hour break, bringing the combined experience with dinner to about eight hours). Eyre's intention was apparently to bring both parts down to two hours each with a break between meaning the play could begin early evening and the entire experience seen in one night (likely bringing the event with dinner to approximately five-and-half-hours). Alan refused to alter the play and would later suggest it was the equivalent of merging both parts into one play - which never seems to have been Eyre's intention. Whatever the differences, there was an impasse.

Into the breach stepped Alan's regular London producer Michael Codron, who offered to stage the play in London as written. It was a big risk for the producer as it required the audience to either visit on two separate nights or see both parts in one day on a Saturday. Although Alan had in the past resisted star names in his plays, it was perhaps inevitable this would have to happen here to make the play's appeal as broad as possible. The well-known television comedian Griff Rhys Jones took the part of Henry, Joanna Lumley played Imogen and the then little known actress Lia Williams took on the role of Karen to great acclaim; Lia would go on to considerable stage and screen success.

The play proved problematic transferring to the proscenium arch; what could be suggested in-the-round in Scarborough had to be seen in the proscenium, such as an impressive if over-the-top flyable section of the Albert Bridge. Expensive moving walkways were installed to allow the sets to move on and off quickly - which were not as successful as the ‘string’ technology of Scarborough. The requirements of a West End production threatened to overwhelm the play and it did not help that the UK was in recession and the West End suffering as a result.

The Revengers' Comedies opened at the Strand Theatre on 17 October 1991 and received very mixed reviews. Generally it was agreed part 1 was stronger than part 2 with a number of critics believing the plays would have been better served by being merged into one shorter piece. The event nature of the play, which had been such a large part of its success in Scarborough, was largely and not unexpectedly lost and it failed to attract the audience needed to maker it viable. The play closed on 4 January 1992 having made a substantial loss for its producer - although as Alan's biographer Paul Allen notes, due to Codron's experience and deal-making, it was far less of a financial disaster than it might have been.

A lack of success in the West End combined with its sheer scale and technical challenges has meant the play has rarely been performed since. Occasionally it is tackled by amateur companies, but it is rare to see a professional production of
The Revengers' Comedies. This might have changed had an ambitious attempt to film the play been a success in 1998. Directed and adapted by Malcolm Mowbray, the film - one of the producers being the BBC - featured a high profile cast including Sam Neill, Helena Bonham Carter, Kristin Scott Thomas and Steve Coogan. Unfortunately, the film fatally compromised the play, reducing a five hour running time to just 82 minutes.

Alan himself has pointed out the inherent problem with adapting the play into a film was that it was inspired by a classic film itself, which anyone would be hard pressed to improve on. The film of the play was released in 1998 and had a very limited cinema release. It was not a success, vividly illustrated by the fact it is most commonly thought of as a television drama, rather than an actual film. It was released on video in the UK, but has only been released on DVD in the USA (under the title
Sweet Revenge) and in certain European territories.

More successful was a radio adaptation of the play in 1996 which saw Jon Strickland (Henry in the world premiere) and Lia Williams (Karen in the London premiere) reprising their roles in a faithful, two-part adaptation of the play. This was directed and adapted by Gordon House, a prolific radio producer of Alan's plays for the BBC. The play has also been published in an acting edition by Samuel French as well as separately and within the collection
Alan Ayckbourn: Plays 4 by Faber & Faber.

The Revengers' Comedies marked a watershed for Alan in London; prior to 1990, 28 of Alan's previous 30 plays transferred to London. Between 1989 and 2002 (when Alan informally withdraw productions from the West End for five years) 11 of 24 plays transferred. This was not as a direct result of the failure of The Revengers' Comedies in London, although it probably played a significant part. Alan's relationship with the West End had never been comfortable; plays written for performance by ensemble companies in an intimate setting were often adversely affected by the transfer to star-cast driven, end-stage productions in large West End venues. His relationship with the National Theatre also changed with the appointment of Richard Eyre as Artistic Director. During his predecessor Peter Hall's tenure, Alan would have five of his plays staged at the National Theatre, during Eyre's tenure there would only be two and both of these were family plays. Finally, Alan's commitment to Scarborough came to the fore when from 1991, the company's move to a new home would begin in earnest and would devour increasing amounts of Alan's time over the next five years.

Perhaps also his London audiences had changed - or rather not moved with the playwright. In Scarborough, it was obvious that Alan's plays had long since moved away from the suburban house-bound comedies which made his name, steadily moving into darker and more ambiguous territory. The regional audiences had embraced Alan's development and although from a critical perspective Alan's development had started to be recognised, there was always a sense that London audiences still wanted Ayckbourn the (perceived) farceur to return. Of course, this was never going to happen except with revivals of his older work.

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