The Square Cat: Interview with Alan Ayckbourn

The following interview with between Alan Ayckbourn and his archivist Simon Murgatroyd took place in September 2010.

Simon Murgatroyd: The Square Cat was your first professional commission, why do you think Stephen Joseph took that risk on you?
Alan Ayckbourn:
I think one of the reasons Stephen Joseph first asked me to write was I let slip early on that I’d written at school. In fact, I’d written my first play before the age of 12 and it was an adaptation of an Anthony Buckeridge book Jennings At School; which I wrote and never got to see because I was ill in the sanatorium. I wrote sketches and little bits and pieces once I was at Haileybury, my public school, where the arts scene was covert and undercover and which was all very exciting; like being in the French resistance!

The story famously goes that the commission came as a direct result of you complaining about the quality of your acting roles in 1958, is this true?
Yes, I was overheard to complain about the play I was in one night, the way actors do. I didn’t have a very good part in it and Stephen Joseph threw down the gauntlet: “If you think you can write a better play, do so.” I said, “I can write better than this - I can write a play tomorrow that’s better than this.” And he said, “OK, do so smarty. There’s just one thing, if you write it, be prepared to play the lead in it.” Which he actually thought would queer my pitch as obviously I’m not going to be lunatic enough or suicidal enough to write myself an unplayable role in a play I didn’t have any confidence in!
But I was so swollen with confidence and possibly a slight stupidity of youth, that I wrote a play in which I gave myself this starring role.

Not just a starring role though. An all-singing and all-dancing role. Which seems slightly strange - possibly suicidal -given you were neither singer nor dancer!
The freedom to write my own play was amazing and the actor in me was urging the author in me onward and onward! So the role was a rock ‘n’ roll singer playing a guitar, singing and dancing; it was an amazing role - Michael Crawford would have died for it! But I couldn’t sing, I couldn’t dance and I certainly couldn’t play the guitar!
So it occurred to me in the first two or three weeks of rehearsals that I ought to remedy this quite quickly and I went for some guitar lessons. I didn’t even have a guitar and this boy looked at me in amazement and said, “how long have you got?” I said: “Well, about two weeks.” He said, “You can’t play the guitar in two weeks! I can teach you a couple of chords.” I said, “Yeah, OK, that’ll do. So can we find a song to go with a couple of chords?” and he said: “Well, there’s a very boring song with two chords in it!” which I finished up playing in this play of mine.

The Square Cat is a rarity for you because it is a pure farce. Why did you decide to write a farce for your first play?
The Square Cat was a farce because that was how it turned out. Everyone tells you; don’t write farces, they’re for old men. Farces are technically very, very difficult to write unless you’re a natural farceur - you have to know exactly all the wheels and nuts of play-building. Long before that, you’re supposed to write a very serious play about how your mother didn’t understand you and how your father was unkind to you; write something rather introverted and gloomy and all about you - which is what 80% of all first plays written are. First plays tend to come soaring out of a person’s unhappy childhood - if they had a happy childhood, they invent an unhappy one.
But I started with a silly play about a woman who fell in love with a pop singer and he arranges to go on holiday with her, to her family’s horror, who then turn up and try to stop her. The rest of the play is about pop singers running in and out of doors.

How was the play received by audiences at the Library Theatre?
Because The Square Cat was light and had a few laughs in it, it made money because we were still doing - in those days - plays largely written by young people who were writing about their “unhappy childhoods” and this was a silly play about no childhood at all. The audience, who were on holiday in Scarborough trying to avoid the rain, ran in gratefully and saw my play, which made the theatre money. It made me more money in one lump than I’d ever earned in my life! £33, it was a fantastic amount! I went completely berserk and bought myself some more records!
Stephen Joseph realised he’d actually, like some freak accident of lightning striking, found himself an embryonic commercial writer and he encouraged me to write more. I, wanting to see more £33s coming in because by then I had a family and one child with another on the way, started to write comedies for Stephen and the first three or four all included exciting parts for me! And then as they went on I began to realise that possibly the one weak link in the plays was this bloke playing all the leads. So I recast them for another actor - to the eternal gratitude of the rest of the company, who were fed up with supporting me.

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