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.

Conversations With Ayckbourn

In 1988, Faber published a second edition of Ian Watson's book Conversations With Ayckbourn updating the previous edition published in 1981. Within the second edition, Alan Ayckbourn talks candidly to Watson about his experiences with Way Upstream at the National Theatre.

At The National Theatre And Back Again by Ian Watson
Ian Watson:
But you gave them cause to think twice about it [the National Theatre letting Alan direct], because they gave you Way Upstream to direct on your own next, and you nearly sailed the building down the river.
Alan Ayckbourn: My first solo. Yes, I did. Do you want the full story of that?
IW: Yes, I do. I'm intrigued by it.
AA: It was a very interesting case of under-estimating the size of a task. It had seemed rather an easy task, to move a boat, apparently on water, into the bank, and so on. We'd done it in Scarborough, for goodness' sake - and we'd made it rain! And we'd done it in a much bigger theatre - very similar to the Olivier - in Houston, Texas. Then we brought it into the Lyttelton. Alan Tagg designed a really very good set. He's not a mechanic; he's a designer. The National was going through a series of extraordinary economies at the time. They decided, therefore, not to bring in what should have been brought in - structural engineers - to design it, but asked for the metal workshop to build it and design it as they went. Now, the man there is an absolutely first-rate metal-worker, but he's not - for God's sake - a structural engineer. If he were, he wouldn't be working in the metal workshop. What happened was that the carpenters' shop got behind - Bill Bryden, I think, was doing Don Quixote at this time - and there was an awful lot of scenery being built and rejected, and they got tremendously behind. As a result, when the deadline came for them to start building my set, they weren't ready, so the metal workshop went ahead on its own and built it. The wood workshop then built it as well, and the result was that the thing turned out to be twice as heavy as it should have been. That was problem number one: the moving banks now weighed two tons as opposed to half a ton. The next problem was that whoever had done the sums with the tank (in which the boat was supposed to sit), had under-estimated the weight of water, and when they filled it, the tank split from one end to the other.
IW: With what result?
AA: It poured down into the sub-basement below the Lyttelton, to start with, into the switch rooms where all the main switchgear was for the theatres. Hundreds and thousands of gallons of water. The stage itself, which is built in a series of lifts, got very, very wet, warped, locked together, with the result that no play could be done on that stage for several days, let alone Way Upstream. There was about £125,000 worth of damage done to the stage - let alone what was going on with the rebuilding of my set. Meanwhile, the rehearsals themselves went very well. We had a boat in the rehearsal room, which was the boat, on wheels, as it was going to be inside the tank, operated by stage management. The boat - unlike in Scarborough, where it was operated from the shore - was operated from the boat itself, which meant that you had two winch-operators inside the boat. It's quite a small boat, and the two winch-operators, of course, were in the midst of all the actors; so you had two extra people in the boat, which doubled the weight. We also had stage managers down there to cue it - I mean, the boat was stuffed with people, so it was a much heavier object than we intended.
There were so many silly things. The boat was on a sort of pendulum action, operated from the shore, and it also tracked up and down the pendulum: the tracking up and down was operated within the boat. The result was, in theory, a most sophisticated series of movements. The boat could actually appear to do whole circles in the water - brilliant! In practice, the winches on the shore, when we came to do the first technical rehearsals, were not calibrated at all: there was no precise way of marking. What they marked them with, believe it or not, was pieces of coloured tape. Now, the winch cables went through the water and scraped against the bank, so the coloured tape would end up about ten yards from its original place! So the boat would then smash into the bank, with the result that the already fragile, repaired tank would judder. One thing led to another: everything that could fail then began to fail. The lighting crew could not get at the lamps to light, because there were workmen strewn all over the bank trying to fix it. The moving bank couldn't move, because it was too heavy and kept jumping off its track. The boat couldn't move, because there were too many people on board and the winches weren't calibrated. For the sound, they decided to use radio control to send a signal to the boat, and that didn't work. So they had to redo that, putting the sounds on to the bank. The actors, in the middle of it all, were quietly going crazy, and I sent them home for several days while we tried to get it straight.
The National was a very strange building. I always say that it's extraordinary how many people take their holiday leave immediately there seems to be a problem! Peter was away - he was in Bayreuth doing some Wagnerian epic. There didn't seem to be any other directors in the building; for many, many days, the administrative side was completely missing, and the cry that I uttered at one technical conference was, 'Who the hell's in charge of this building?' There seemed to be no one. It's a fault I think the National recognised later and have remedied. There are now definite troubleshooters in the building. If I'd been anything other than a guest director, I'd have had a lot more knowledge of whom to turn to, but I was in fact just there for the show. Tempers started flying; people started to get very bitter, and the result was that a play that should have gone on and surprised people - and it was visually exciting when it worked - as something quite light and charming, became a cause célèbre. The press were determined to get in and were speculating. There's no business like disaster business.
IW: Once you start cancelling previews, rumours become very strong.
AA: The only way I could get any attention was to cancel the previews! Nobody seemed to take any notice. Eventually, Peter rang me to ask how it was going. I said, 'It isn't going: I've just
cancelled it.' He said, it's Saturday night.' I said, i know.' And there was this tremendous pause on the international line, then he said, 'Put me through to my secretary. I'm coming back.' And he arrived back, because money was pouring out of that building like from a huge wound. I sat in there one night: the Olivier was in the throes of a technical rehearsal, the Cottesloe was the only theatre open, because I'd closed the Lyttelton, and the whole of that building on the South Bank was in darkness. It wasn't a very pleasing feeling, that I'd actually closed a theatre, but it was the only way. In the end, we opened, but it was obvious that the problems weren't going to get solved. Rather than laying the blame on any individual, one can say that it was underfunded and the size of the problem under-estimated. We made fatal economies at the wrong time, and maybe the National should in the end have said, 'We can't afford to do it.' If they'd come to me and said, 'Look, the water's great, but we actually cannot afford to do it', then I could have redesigned the production and we could have done it without the water. But we'd managed it twice with water, and it was terrific: there were images of light bouncing off water and visually it was very exciting. The nights when that big iron curtain opened on the Lyttelton stage and the boat came slowly into view, with the water lapping round it, it was just super.
IW: Was the play brought off prematurely?
AA: Yes, they couldn't keep it in repertoire. Although they eventually put it together once, every time it got dragged out... It was also by then a piece with a slight stigma to it. We had people coming again, for the wrong reasons, and critics turning up in gumboots for the first night.
IW: How does Peter Hall see that production in retrospect? Does he shudder at the memory, or is he quite proud that the National did it?
AA: He was very gracious about it. He's never fainted when it's been mentioned. I think he just felt it was one that got away.
IW: Did you sense any reluctance on his part to come back to you for more after that?
AA: No. I said I'd never go back there. I was angrier than most, because I felt that I'd lost a perfectly good play somewhere.
IW: And you blamed the National for this?
AA: Well, I blamed the fact that technically it was a cock-up. At the time, you stand there and scream at each other, don't you? But, in the end, it wasn't anyone's fault in particular. If the fault was anywhere, it was in the original underfunding. The National do take enormous risks because they don't have enough money. When they did Guys and Dolls - I remember somebody telling me at the time - it was a miracle that it came together: a miracle! There was so much short-cutting to get it on, and it was like a race. When it worked, it worked marvellously, and there was this huge sigh of relief that ran round. 'My God, we got away with it! That truck was only just ready and could have crashed; this could have happened, and that could have happened.' All the 'what-ifs'. With mine, it was the reverse: we missed by a whisker from getting it right. And then it was like a house of cards: everything fell down. And it all started, I suspect, from saying, 'Now, how can we do this cheaply? How can we keep this within the budget we've been given?' Instead of saying, 'We can do it, but we need more money.' It was a Lyttelton show that should have had an Olivier budget. There are all sorts of things that you live and learn. When I went in with A Small Family Business, I went upstairs and I said, 'Now look here, this is a show on two floors, and I want the two floors before I start rehearsing. Please. Sir.' And David Aukin, who is now there as a sort of hand-in-glove-with-the-artistic-director person, said, 'Fine!' And it was done. We thereby possibly avoided another problem.

Copyright: Ian Watson. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.