No Knowing: ArticlesThis article by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd, was published in the programme for the world premiere production of Alan Ayckbourn's No Knowing at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in 2016.
There’s nothing quite like Christmas.
Particularly if it’s in an Alan Ayckbourn play.
Good will to all men. Happy family reunions. Love and good feelings.
You’d be hard pressed to find these.
In Ayckbourn plays, Christmas is a time when true feelings come to the fore, where hairline fractures develop into brutal breaks, where good will erupts into bad feelings.
It is, as Alan has frequently noted, a great time to set a play.
“My late agent, the great eccentric Peggy Ramsay, hated me writing plays set at Christmas. 'Oh Alan,' she'd say, 'not another bloody Christmas play.' But I'd explain to her that Christmas was a gift to a dramatist. You're always looking for a reason to stick a group of people together who can't stand each other, aren't you? Dinner parties are good, but what better time than Christmas? You've got three days together and there's always bound to be at least a cousin no one can stand. I've seen it at my own Christmases - two relatives arguing bitterly over who should sit in which chair.”
Alan has been setting plays during the festive season practically since he began writing. His third play, Dad’s Tale, promises a delicious Christmas dinner of beef dripping - without salt - and a father turning into a budgerigar. It’s not one of the classics.
The next one is though with Absurd Person Singular launching the notion that Christmas is a fertile time for the playwright.
Set over “three of the most awful festivities imaginable” (past, present and future. Obviously), it concerns three married couples brought together for no other reason than festive obligations; indeed one can’t imagine any other rational reason to bring them together.
The play arguably stands as the playwright’s funniest seasonal play as the appalling, aspirational Hopcrofts work their way up the food chain, moving from ridicule to proto-Thatcherites making the others literally dance to their tune by the end.
It’s also a play which delves deep into the familiar Ayckbourn theme of marriage and how appallingly men and women treat each other. There is precious little love on show here.
Yet it also features one of the most successful Ayckbourn relationships in Sidney and Jane Hopcroft; a couple whose commitment to each other is not enshrined through love, but a relentless need to climb the social ladder and better those around them.
Here is a play which presents Christmas as something few would want to be part of and celebrate.
The playwright decided “to paint the rosier side of the picture” with his next foray into the festivities with his famed Christmas play Season’s Greetings.
It is typically Ayckbourn in that children are heard but not seen, but who have no need to be seen as the real juveniles are front and centre, going through that “awkward age of 25 to 70.” Alan’s biographer, Paul Allen, once wrote how well the play depicted Christmas showing how adults “are every bit as greedy, self-obsessed and vindictive as children, and they have the extra ingredient of sexual hunger.”
A perennially popular play, one of the theories for its success is knowing that at least our own Christmases aren’t that bad! Although with much of it drawn from his own experiences, Alan would perhaps disagree.
“It’s a play about love and how unfair it all is. And success and failure. And jealousy and self-deception. And greed and envy and lust and gluttony. Just an average family Christmas.”
The unfairness of love and life also rears its head briefly in the year spanning Joking Apart, which is set during four celebrations over 12 years.
Again the adults are the most childish as they present the bizarre sight of a Boxing Day tennis match being played on a rain-soaked court while, as one character sagely notes, “Your children are the only sane people in this house. Sitting in the dry in front of the fire, watching television.”
This one scene perhaps best sums up Alan’s Christmas plays in that no-one gets what they truly want and the world is shown not to be foil wrapped. A business partner is humiliated on the court leading to an off-stage stroke and a married vicar declares his love for another woman before being harshly told to “go home.”
That sound is less a bauble shattering than hopes and dreams being crushed.
Although Christmas makes a brief appearance in Sugar Daddies and Wildest Dreams - which probably features several of the most dispiriting presents ever given, an omelette pan anyone? - it is most recently prevalent in Life & Beth.
Here we come full circle to Absurd Person Singular. For in the presence of the late Gordon Timms, we have a spectral Sidney Hopcroft; a ghost of Christmas past in Christmas present planning appalling Christmas futures.
It’s probably one of the more optimistic of Alan’s views on marriage though, hinting that the tedium of an affectionate if less than happy marriage will give way to a contented later life for Beth - once her late husband stops haunting her.
Amidst this, the theme of adults never really growing up recurs as Beth’s sister-in-law, Connie, reveals she has never come to terms with the fact she didn’t receive a fairy cycle as a child and it has practically blighted her entire outlook on life for decades.
It makes one think of the unseen children in Season’s Greetings and if there is any hope for them in the future given the Christmases their parents have inflicted on them.
All these plays also typify what Alan once revealed was the perfect recipe for writing a Christmas play: “Give them a landmine, but make sure you wrap it in a bit of tinsel.”
As we watch the Throke family celebrate last Christmas in No Knowing, be careful of the presents. There’s definitely a few landmines wrapped in tinsel lying around.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.