Way Upstream: The National Theatre Story

Arguably one of the most notorious incidents in the career of Alan Ayckbourn was his production of Way Upstream at the National Theatre. The play endured many technical issues and - at one stage - even closed the National Theatre. The extracts on this page and the accompanying two articles tell the story of Way Upstream at the National Theatre from various published viewpoints.

The National Theatre Story

To mark the 50th anniversary of the National Theatre in 2013, The National Theatre Story by Daniel Rosenthal was published by Oberon Books. Chronicling the five decades of the venue's history, it included a section on the National's notorious production of Alan Ayckbourn's Way Upstream. Extracts from the book were published in The Sunday Times magazine in November 2015, which are reproduced below.

The Boat That Nearly Sank The Theatre (1982) by Daniel Rosenthal
In 1982 the National produced Alan Ayckbourn's play Way Upstream. Most of the action would take place in a cabin cruiser, and the stage was flooded accordingly. Whatever the merits of the play, the production soon descended into farce.

Way Upstream, two couples find their holiday on a hired pleasure cruiser, Hadforth Bounty, descending into rancour, sexual humiliation and violence on an increasingly allegorical voyage along "the 70-mile stretch of the River Orb between Hadforth Lock and Armageddon Bridge during seven days one August". Ayckbourn had enjoyed a boating holiday on the Norfolk Broads with his wife and sons. He explained to Peter Hall that Way Upstream, which would have its world premiere at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, was "rather different for me and a bit of a technical bugger, to boot. We're flooding our stage and trying to build a boat that manoeuvres... We may all drown... Come and see it. You will need Wellingtons." *
By late February, Rodger Hulley had been assigned as production manager for
Way Upstream in the Lyttelton. He digested Ayckbourn's "Technical Observations on the Boat and Other Things". The Hadforth Bounty, described as "a smart unpretentious little hire craft" with four berths, must have its hull and decks thoroughly waterproofed, to cope with 12 minutes' artificial rainfall; she must sit squarely in her tank, moving sideways, upstage and downstage, drifting gently or swivelling violently, with variable weight distribution, as actors shifted position, "even running from one end to the other". The main water tank would be placed in the cavity created when the Lyttelton stage-floor elevator was lowered. The boat, weighing approximately one tonne, would sit in 8in of water, and be winched along several tracks by operators hidden from audience view in a small cabin. The following snippets come from in-house dossiers, and show reports by the Lyttelton's stage manager Ernest Hall - who dryly noted down every watery mishap.

Monday, August 9: The set has been installed in the Lyttelton. Ayckbourn arrives for the technical rehearsal to find crew members aghast, as water pours from the tanks onto the stage, threatening the main electrical supply for the building, below. Emergency flood measures are improvised; Ayckbourn retreats to the rehearsal room.

Saturday, August 14: The previews on August 12 and 13 were cancelled; now the first public performance starts late because of running repairs to the riverbank. Half-way through Act One the boat collides with the bank and can no longer brake safely. Up comes the iron safety curtain; on comes Ayckbourn: "Ladies and gentlemen, sorry about this. I'm the author [applause]. The management has asked me to say please go and have a drink on them and we'll sort it out." The performance resumes after 18 minutes and, although the rain effect inadvertently spreads onto Row A of the stalls, there is no further calamity. The August 16 preview is cancelled to allow for more tests.

Friday, August 27: Way Upstream goes up late and the interval is extended to un-jam the moving bank. Act Two grinds to a halt twice because of a faulty pivot winch; up comes the safety curtain.

Monday, August 30: The leaks have warped the Lyttelton's wooden stage floor. Emergency repairs by Bovis cost more than £3,000. The cancellations, Ayckbourn senses, are leaving audiences "really pissed off".

Sunday, September 5: "Up River Without a Paddle" - The Sunday Times says Ayckbourn's "black comedy looks like becoming a black tragedy" for the NT. Press officer Stephen Wood promises there is "no question" of doing Way Upstream without the water.

Monday, December 13: Punishment for Wood's hubris arrives, as the Hadforth Bounty moves through an empty tank. Over the weekend, a corner of the tank, empty and in its storage area, was discovered alight. The fire - possibly started by a disgruntled member of staff - caused a gaping hole, which cannot be repaired until Way Upstream's next repertoire break. Wood tells the Evening Standard: "I would hate to say there is a jinx on this play."

Friday, December 24: The Standard reveals that three members of Way Upstream's onboard technical crew - Trish Bertram, Tony Godel and Tony Collins - have suffered "seasickness, backache, claustrophobia, disorientation, depression, loss of weight and pimples', working in conditions


"would make a coal-miner or even a galley slave wince".

Thursday, February 8.1983: At the Department of Microbiology. St Thomas' Hospital. Professor Ian Phillips has conducted bacteriological tests on water from the Way Upstream tank, home to an eclectic cast of micro-organisms: "Leaving the question of smell aside. I would not be particularly keen on swimming in the stuff." The water should be treated with pool disinfectant to protect actors and crew from gastroenteritis.

Thursday, April 21: Two days after Way Upstream closes, the National puts the Hadforth Bounty up for sale at £2,000, and John Goodwin tells the Evening Standard this luxurious star of the stage could easily be made seaworthy. No buyers come forward, so the cruiser is donated to a London nursery school: a heart warming coda to a sorry saga - until the little darlings vandalise the boat so severely that it is removed from their playground

The National Theatre Story by Daniel Rosenthal is published by Oberon Books and available from The Ayckbourn Shop.

Administrator's note: It should be emphasised there were actually no significant issues with the Scarborough production of the play. The one major issue was the cancellation of the first preview when the technical rehearsal had to be put back a day. None of the issues reported above which affected the National's production were encountered in what was essentially a small regional theatre with limited means, a tiny technical staff and a small budget - but which still managed to flood a stage, produce a rainstorm and create a moving boat without any significant difficulties or issues. Unlike the National Theatre!

Copyright: Daniel Rosenthal. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.