Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Robin Thornber: An Obituary

Robin Thornber, one of the most prolific and earliest reviewers of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays, died last week.
The critic, who wrote predominantly for The Guardian, is among the most significant chroniclers of Alan Ayckbourn’s playwriting career through the 1970s and 1980s. He was the first critic writing for a national newspaper to consistently review the world premiere of Alan’s plays.
Robn Thornber’s notable commitment to reviewing  regional theatre was the exception rather than the rule in the 1970s and Alan Ayckbourn has noted how his support was gratefully received by those working in the regions.
“We, out there in far-flung regional theatre, will always be grateful to Robin - one of the first national critics to take us and our work seriously and draw it to wider attention,” said Alan Ayckbourn.
Robin’s first review of an Ayckbourn play was the world premiere of How The Other Half Loves in 1970 at The Library Theatre, Scarborough. Although the critics Benedict Nightingale and Eric Shorter had reviewed the earlier world premieres of Mr Whatnot (1964) and Meet My Father (1967) respectively, Robin was the first critic for a national newspaper to consistently journey to Scarborough to review the world premieres of Alan’s plays during the 1970s.
His review of How The Other Half Loves noted it was an “exceptionally good play of its kind” but it was with Time And Time Again that the critic showed an erudite perception of Alan’s writing that was rare in reviews of Alan’s world premieres of the period.
“This one has a new maturity – a slower more effective pace, and deeper ambivalence. Not many plays have such a touching, complex antihero as Leonard.”
Where Robin Thornber stood out though during this time was two years later when he was the only national critic to visit all three of what became known as The Norman Conquests. His reviews offer a rare insight into the staging of the original production of the trilogy and how they were perceived and received prior to their considerable success in the West End and, of course, far further afield.
Perhaps his most significant early review though is that of Absent Friends; both he and fellow critic Benedict Nightingale the first to appreciate the fundamental change of direction Alan took with the play and the darker direction of his writing.
“There’s a breathtaking cheek about it all. Not only this production, directed by Mr Ayckbourn, stretches every silence to the verge of fidgeting. But in the way he has us laughing over the very last taboo subject, death and the way it embarrasses us. And the deeper irony is that under the giggles we’re also faced with the equal unmentionable reality of the death of love. Absent Friends is not just black comedy – which is usually funnier than gloomy – but bleak comedy, cold, hard and ruthless.”
Alan Ayckbourn has said of Absent Friends it is less about death than the death of love and Thornber was the first critic to recognise this in print.
Robin Thornber would consistently review Alan’s plays at The Library Theatre and later the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round until Alan’s final world premiere at the latter venue, The Musical Jigsaw Play in 1995, which Robin described as “a brainteaser of infinite ingenuity”.
Robin Thornber retired from writing for The Guardian in 1996, the same year Alan Ayckbourn moved his company into the new Stephen Joseph Theatre. Although Robin Thornber's commitment to regional theatre meant he was not as well known as some London critics, there is no doubting that to those of us interested in Alan Ayckbourn's plays, he offered a valuable and consistent insight into some of Alan’s most significant early writing.
Robin Thornber died of cancer on 5 December 2010, aged 66.

Friday, November 5, 2010

All Things Ayckbourn: Second most performed playwright in...

An occasional editorial by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist Simon Murgatroyd about all things Ayckbourn.

One of the most frequently posed questions to www.alanayckbourn.net is (right after "How do I get hold of Season's Greetings on DVD?): Is Alan Ayckbourn really the second most performed playwright in the UK?
I've no idea.
And despite what you may have read, no matter what the quality of the publication, neither does anyone else. No-one can say with any degree of certainty where in the theatrical pop charts Shakespeare, Alan Ayckbourn, Alan Bennett, John Godber or any other playwright stands.
We can take an educated guess (Shakespeare as number 1...), but that's about it as no-one has done any definitive research into this for years and even that dated research (which is what is probably being quoted) is somewhat flawed given it was only about a specific facet of British theatre.
So where does this oft-repeated but rarely substantiated fact come from? And, no, it doesn't come from Alan Ayckbourn's official website! As far as I've been able to discover, this fatuous quote originates in some statistics published in 1990 - but for the context to these, we need to go back a few years earlier.
In 1983, the Arts Council of Great Britain (as it was known), published for the first time statistics about regional theatres in the UK subsidised by the Arts Council (keep that in mind...). Compiled over a two year period, it reported on the most performed play (Cider With Rosie apparently), audience figures and, amongst other facts, the most popular playwrights.
Between 1981 and 1983, more people went to see an Ayckbourn play than a Shakespeare play - although there were slightly more productions of Shakespeare than Ayckbourn. This was promptly reported in the media that Alan Ayckbourn was the UK's most popular playwright and it would often be repeated without context.
For it's important before we get to 1990 to put these figures into a context. They are pertinent only to regional theatres subsidised by the Arts Council. They do not include regional commerical theatres, West End theatres or amateur productions. It's an interesting but somewhat limited view of British Theatre during a very specific period between 1981 and 1983.
These reports from the Arts Council continued to be published, again restricted to the same criteria, fairly regularly with Alan and Shakespeare battling it out for the top spot and swapping places fairly regularly.
In 1990, the Arts Council published its Cultural Trends report which included the statistic that Alan Ayckbourn was the second most popular playwright after Shakespeare. In context, this was limited to the previous 12 months and was again limited to regional subsidised theatre.
The Arts Council eventually stopped publishing such specific figures about plays and playwrights and I'm unaware of any major media story on the popularity of Alan Ayckbourn (or any other playwright), validated by actual facts and statistics, since the mid 1990s. The Arts Council statistics from 1990 appear to have been the last to have been widely reported.
So when I rhetorically ask myself where did the fact Alan is the second most performed playwright come from, my answer is: probably an Arts Council report in 1990 that has been regurgitated and repeated ad nauseum without anyone questioning where the statistic came from or, more importantly, whether its accurate or can be substantiated.
Let's emphasise, there is no doubt Alan Ayckbourn is an extremely popular playwright - had the reports included amateur, commerical tours and West End productions during the '80s and '90s, I have absolutely no doubt he would have had the highest attendance of any playwright in the country during those decades. But no-one can specifically say how popular he was then or now.
Today, Alan's plays are still a staple of subsidised theatres in the UK as well as amateur companies. Generally there's at least one major tour of an Ayckbourn play going on at any one time in the UK and after a short lull, the West End has gone back to producing at least one Ayckbourn production a year. I've no doubt that were someone able to pull all the statistics together, Alan would still be in the top three performed playwrights in the UK.
But if you see anyone definitely state he (or any other playwright) is the first, second, third or twenty-third most performed playwright in the UK, take it with a pinch of salt or, better still, write and ask where they got the statistic from. It'd be fascinating to know (and if they say Alan Ayckbourn's Official Website, you know they're fibbing...).
Saying all that though, if someone were to ask me who the most performed playwright in the UK was. Well, I'd take a shot. I may be Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist, but I wouldn't bet against Mr Shakespeare. He's got pretty good form....

If you're interested in seeing the original Arts Council press release from 1983 about Alan Ayckbourn being the most performed playwright in the UK, you can find it at Alan Ayckbourn's website here.