Bedroom Farce: BackgroundBedroom Farce marks a significant turning point in both Alan Ayckbourn’s writing and directing career. Yet the play’s popularity and a perception of it as lightweight has often led to it being dismissed as a minor Ayckbourn work - even Alan has admitted he had problems with the play’s success. However, this is a significant play both for him and the nascent National Theatre venue.
In 1975, the National Theatre moved to its purpose-built home on London’s South Bank under the direction of Peter Hall; a move that was not without controversy and which would generate questions about the National Theatre’s purpose and place, some of which are still being debated today. Hall was already an admirer of Alan Ayckbourn’s writing, having been introduced to his work with the 1973 London production of Absurd Person Singular. As a result, Alan was formally approached in January 1974 to provide a play for the Lyttelton auditorium as part of the National Theatre’s first season. Alan agreed and provided Peter Hall with a title for the play at least a year in advance of actually writing it. Although Alan would not write the play until May 1975, an interview with the Sunday Times in June 1974 confirmed he already had some firm ideas. “I’m going to call it Bedroom Farce, A Comedy. I’m worrying about it a bit because I’ve never written for the posh fellers before. It’ll have everything about bedrooms but copulation, something which I believe is hardly practiced in the British bedroom anyway.” The title was later shortened to just Bedroom Farce, but commenting on the original title Alan noted: “I thought I’d confuse the issue.” Later he may have regretted not keeping the title when some critics took issue with the fact Bedroom Farce was not really a farce, despite Alan never describing the play as such. Indeed he has always described the play itself as a comedy: "It's a comedy though it's called a farce."
Hall also agreed that Alan could premiere the play at his home venue, the Library Theatre in Scarborough, before it transferred to the National Theatre. In the meantime, Alan’s immediate concerns was the imminent premiere of Jeeves, his musical collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber. Jeeves opened at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London, on 22 April 1975 and closed on 24 May 1975. It was a notorious musical flop, but despite its very public failure Alan was not as downcast as might be expected: “I remember going in to see the cast on the last night and not feeling too bad about it as I had just finished Bedroom Farce that day.” It’s doubtful whether the cast felt the same way!
As was typical of practically all Alan’s writing at the time, the play was delivered at the last possible moment to the Library Theatre and even by Alan’s standards, it was a particularly tense time as Peter Hall recalls: “It [Bedroom Farce] was due to rehearse on a Monday; he started writing it on the previous Wednesday, wrote all day Wednesday and most of the night, all day Thursday and most of the night, all day Friday and most of the night; on Saturday he typed it out, and on Sunday armed with some duplicated copies he drove up to Scarborough. He gave it to the cast on Monday morning, and after the reading collapsed in bed for two days. He said this was the kind of pressure he needed, and usually induced, to write a play.” So late was the script, Alan did not send it to his agent Margaret Ramsay - better known as Peggy - for another week. At the same time, Alan asked Peggy to pass the script on to his usual West End producer Michael Codron, as he was not confident Hall would like the piece. He needn’t have worried, Hall “liked it very much” and noted “I love the serious observation underlying the comedy.” Ironically, Codron liked the script too and arranged that should Bedroom Farce transfer from the National Theatre to the West End, it would become a joint production between the National and himself.
Bedroom Farce opened at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, on 16 June 1975. Commercially the play was very successful, but it received mixed critical notices. While all agreed it was an enjoyable play, The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian had particular issues with regard to Trevor and Susannah’s characters. The production was not without its problems either; commissioned for an end-stage, Alan had difficulty adapting it to the limited confines of the Library Theatre and ended up staging it in a three-sided / thrust production rather than the usual round which he had intended. Peter Hall came to see the play though and despite certain reservations was sure it would work at the National. Hall was now planning to open the play in autumn 1976 and was already compiling a wish-list of actors which included Ralph Richardson and Peggy Ashcroft. The production would later be moved back to 1977.
Bedroom Farce marked the first time Alan would direct the London premiere of one of his plays, although he had been directing the world premieres of them in Scarborough since 1967. It had been agreed that Peter Hall and Alan Ayckbourn would co-direct the play - presumably to reassure the National Theatre that Alan was not flying solo on his first directorial credit both in London and at the National. It was a cleverly engineered ruse by Hall though. Due to existing commitments, Alan could not attend the first week of rehearsals. By the time he arrived, Hall had blocked the piece and announced he could be found next door, having purposely scheduled conflicting rehearsals for Volpone. "I wasn't going to do Bedroom Farce if the author didn't want me to," said Hall in 2011. "So I tried to manufacture a situation where he [Alan] did what I wanted and I did what he wanted. It worked." Although both men are credited as co-directors, to all and intents it was Alan’s piece. Rehearsals were scheduled for an extraordinary eight weeks - Alan was used to less than four at Scarborough.
The production received its premiere at the Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, on 1 March 1977 as part of a short pre-London tour. Originally the play was due to visit the Theatre Royal, Norwich, but when the manager refused to pay the National Theatre 65% of the box office, the National pulled the production and opted to visit Birmingham followed by the New Theatre, Cardiff. The premiere at the National Theatre on 16 March 1977 was met with an effusive reaction by the critics. The vast majority of the reviews were positive and most of the original concerns were forgotten.
The one major reservation voiced by many critics was why such a light piece by a popular - and, thus perceived, commerical - playwright was at the National Theatre rather than in the West End. This was unexpectedly emphasised by the fact Michael Codron opened Alan’s Just Between Ourselves a month later on 20 April 1977 in the West End; by far the less commercial play, Just Between Ourselves is extremely dark and led to serious discussion as to whether the plays were in the right venues. Alan was adamant Bedroom Farce was the right choice for the National at a difficult time: “I think I was sensible not to try and write a very serious play for the National: it would have been absolutely fatal suddenly to change my whole style. I wrote them a very jolly play: it had its moments, but it was jolly…. The National was at one of its low ebbs - it had had a lot of technical problems and a lot of bad press, and people were asking, 'Why is all the national funding going to this?' I think what Bedroom Farce did at the time - which was really nice - was to provide the building, if not with its first, certainly with one of its earliest big hits. It certainly lifted the morale: it was during that terrible period of the strikes, and all that business with pickets. There had been a lot of very ugly feeling around."
Peter Hall felt the play had been an “enormous success” and that it had been a “joyous experience” working with Alan, but even he was taken back by the vitriol of the National Theatre's critics. "The critics were enraged, almost to a man, that we should be using public money in order to amuse ourselves by doing commercial plays - this was disgraceful! I couldn't believe it, I thought they'd taken leave of their senses." Despite the critics' misgivings, the success of the play soon led Peter Hall to ask Alan to write another play for the autumn 1978 season. Alan would actually return in 1980 with Sisterly Feelings.
Ensconced in rep at the National, the play briefly toured to Bristol Hippodrome in September 1977 and would run in the Lyttelton until 17 August 1978; initial expectations were the play would close in February 1978. Its success, however, generated its own problems as there was an almost immediate clamour for the play by the regional repertory theatres. Naturally, the National turned down all such requests except for the Nottingham Playhouse. A decision which generated a considerable amount of bad feeling. On 29 September 1977, the first professional rep production opened at that theatre with the apparent blessing of the National. Naturally, a number of other regional companies now felt they should be allowed to stage the play but all were rebuffed by the National and, particularly damaging, the finger was pointed at Alan. It is not clear whether this was a misunderstanding or a deliberately calculated move on the National’s part, but Alan’s agent Peggy soon found herself writing to several companies explaining Alan “was not the prime mover” in an attempt to diffuse an already complex situation. This was to no avail, as in October Alan received a strongly worded letter from the Liverpool Playhouse that to all intent blamed him for the whole situation. Mortified by this, Alan insisted there could never again be selective releases of his plays. As the debate continued and Peggy defended Alan’s position making absolutely clear his indisputable support and respect for regional repertory theatre, it highlighted to Alan a potential pitfall of his popularity. If anything he felt the plays were too successful and this would lead to an inevitable backlash. His instinct was to stop the West End being flooded with his plays and try to feed them in at suitable intervals, much as they were at Scarborough: “My only reason for stopping release of plays personally has to do with the traffic jam of material flowing on to the market. Quite marvellous and very gratifying. I’m horribly aware though that with all these simultaneous releases - the result of several years’ writing - I get the reputation of ‘a play a day’ man. Also untrue. Also The Guardian gets ratty after a bit.” Bedroom Farce was eventually released for professional production on 1 January 1979. The Liverpool Playhouse opened it on 5 January 1979 and the first repertory tour would be launched by Oxford Playhouse in the same month.
By April 1978, Bedroom Farce had become the National’s longest running show in repertoire and in its first year was seen by 140,429 paying audience members. Such was the play’s success, the National decided to transfer it to the West End in association with Michael Codron. Initially scheduled for an 11 week run - later extended, Bedroom Farce opened with much of the NT company at the Prince Of Wales Theatre on 7 November 1978, who were then quickly replaced with a new company. The production would run until September 1979 and undergo at least one other change of company. However, but this time Alan was barely involved in the production, he recalls noting how the production declined in quality the longer it ran and he played no part in re-directing any of the West End cast changes.
The majority of the original company meanwhile crossed the Atlantic for a Canadian / American tour of the play. It opened in Toronto on 22 January 1979 for four weeks, before going to Washington for five weeks. Bedroom Farce then opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, New York, on 29 March 1979 where it would run for 276 performances. The reviews were largely excellent - including the all important New York Times - although business was disappointing. Various explanations were offered for this, but Alan conceded it might all be a matter of expectations: “[The National Theatre] spelled great acting and classical theatre, and I think that put off people who might have enjoyed a funny evening. The audience for a ‘National Theatre show’ were in turn put off by the idea of a lightweight commercial play.” Despite this, the play was nominated in the Tony Awards for Best Direction and Best Play with Joan Hickson and Michael Gough winning Best Supporting Actor awards.
The National was not finished with the play though, having just signed a £180,000 deal with Granada Television in the UK to broadcast six plays over two years. As a result, Bedroom Farce - with much of the original cast still intact - was transmitted on ITV on 28 September 1980 and was a ratings hit. The success of this adaptation was further emphasised when the British Film Institute chose to screen it at the National Film Theatre in 1998 as part of its Popular Television Of The ‘70s And ‘80s film festival.
The massive success of the play, though, did not sit easily with Alan, particularly when later plays such as Joking Apart were not as well received. By 1981, it was on the record he resented the play - although as has been frequently noted, Alan tends to favour the less well appreciated of his plays: “I’m rather cheesed off with Bedroom Farce at the moment. I’ve had quite enough of that…. I never really liked Bedroom Farce very much. Yes, I did: I got to like it quite a lot. I felt rather extraordinary when I wrote it, though. I didn’t quite know why I’d written it. It was very strange. It cropped up in the middle of my serious phase. This rather jolly play suddenly arrived. And I think I was rather rude to it. I said to it, 'I’m an Absent Friends man now, a much more serious dramatist.'”
The success of the television adaptation now led to an unexpected development. Granada had beaten the likes of both EMI and Universal pictures to make a film of the play; the success of which had not gone unnoticed. In 1981, Thames Television proposed the idea of developing a sitcom spin-off, based around the characters of Ernest and Delia. Alan was approached after Joan Hickson and Michael Gough had expressed interest in the proposal, having played the characters in the National Theatre production. Alan was wary of the idea, having deliberately steered clear of television and saw a number of potential pitfalls: “I’m very wary about spin-offs. Characters, established somewhat cryptically with a few pen strokes and comparatively few lines of dialogue can over-inflate horribly or shrink to nothing.” He also noted the production would founder if Michael and Joan did not reprise their roles. Alan declined an offer to write the script, but left the door open for someone else with a proviso. “I feel quite strongly, though - no, very strongly - that you must be careful; where you take the two of them. I think were I writing them, I’d keep them very much within the confines of the house. Ernest and Delia make only occasional forays elsewhere. They mistrust it.”
Thames decided to move on with the idea and began negotiating with the playwright Peter Tinniswood to write the pilot and suggested 25 half-hour episodes to Alan beginning production in September 1982. Despite Alan’s advice about the characters, which Tinniswood had agreed with, Thames was still discussing moving Ernest and Delia out of the house for “adventures.” In a difficult position, Peter wrote the pilot, which Joan Hickson found unsatisfactory: “I find it distasteful and no more like them than chalk from cheese. What it all boils down to is that no one on Earth could possibly write them but you who created them.” Joan pulled out and Alan decided to put a stop to it all. He wrote to the producer Michael Mills who agreed the idea had run out of steam, particularly as Michael Gough was now unavailable. Thus ended an intriguing twist in the story of Bedroom Farce.
Bedroom Farce had meanwhile quickly become a popular work with professional and amateur companies, both at home and abroad. It was published in 1977 as part of the Three Plays collection by Chatto & Windus, which was later published in softcover by Penguin and stands as the most successful published collection of Alan's plays having never been out of print; it is currently published by Vintage Classics and is also available as an ebook. Samuel French published the acting edition of Bedroom Farce in 1978, the same year it was published in America.
Despite Alan’s early reservations about the play, he did return to it in 2000 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. He successfully directed it in The Round and then re-directed it for the end-stage McCarthy, prior to touring; this is the first and only time Alan has staged one of his plays in both auditoria at the SJT. The play was a critical and commercial success and offered a unique opportunity to finally see how Alan had originally hoped to stage the play at the Library Theatre, alongside the staging it was originally commissioned for by the National Theatre.
The success of Alan’s own 2000 production was dampened slightly by a high profile West End production, ostensibly marking the 25th anniversary of the play’s premiere at the National Theatre. Alan’s regular London producer, Michael Codron, mounted a revival in 2002 which opened at the Aldwych Theatre on 8 April, following a short pre-West End try-out in Guildford and Richmond. On paper, the project must have looked promising with Richard Briers - making a welcome return to the West End in an Ayckbourn play - joined by popular actress June Whitfield as Ernest and Delia. Directed by Loveday Ingram, the play gained satisfactory reviews but the final result was a disappointing production which poorly served the play. The design of the set compromised both the play as well as sight-lines in the Aldwych Theatre and Alan was less than happy with the direction of the play, which closed two weeks earlier than its planned 16 week run. In solitude this might not have had a profound impact, but combined with the much-publicised problems with Alan’s Damsels In Distress trilogy at the Duchess Theatre later that year, Alan's relationship with the West End was to be irrevocably altered. Alan has never had an easy relationship with London and the combination of this relationship alongside two London productions which became problematic for very different reasons, led Bedroom Farce and the Damsels In Distress trilogy to be the final Ayckbourn plays to appear in the commercial West End for five years. Alan decided it was time to take a hiatus from the West End, choosing not to allow his new plays to be produced in the West End. It also ended the West End relationship between Alan and Codron after three decades of the latter producing Alan's plays in London.
The moratorium also extended to major tours of his plays and, fittingly, it was Bedroom Farce which also ended the touring moratorium as, in 2007, the first major, non-Stephen Joseph Theatre produced tour of an Ayckbourn play was announced in five years. With experienced Ayckbourn director and actor Robin Herford at the helm, Bedroom Farce began a national tour, the success of which confirmed its place as one of the most popular of Alan Ayckbourn's plays. It remains one of his most frequently produced plays by both professional and amateur companies in the UK.
For a major revival in 2009, the instigator of the play - Sir Peter Hall - returned to it when he revived Bedroom Farce at the Rose Theatre, Kingston, in repertory with Strindberg's Miss Julie. Although a seemingly strange match, a strong ensemble company led by Nicholas le Provost and Jane Asher as Ernest and Delia, under the direction of Hall, proved very successful and the play was critically acclaimed. This production transferred to London's West End at the Duke Of York's Theatre from 24 March to 19 June, 2010, before embarking on a successful UK tour.
A further measure of the play's impact and success saw a scene from the play performed as part of the National Theatre's 50th anniversary event on 2 November 2013 and broadcast around the world, with Nicholas le Provost and Penelope Wilton playing the roles of Ernest and Delia.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.