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.

Alan Ayckbourn: Grinning At The Edge

Paul Allen's biography of Alan Ayckbourn - Grinning At The Edge - published by Methuen, includes a section about Alan's experiences with Way Upstream at the National Theatre, highlighting just how different it was to the original Scarborough production.

The Flood by Paul Allen
While Intimate Exchanges was an epic on a shoe-string which worked, albeit sometimes painfully, because of the collective will to make it work, the National Theatre with its resources of manpower, technology and experience assumed that it could easily achieve what little Scarborough had done with Way Upstream. When the NT workshops intimated to Alan that he could and should leave to them the business of making the boat and the river work, he willingly stepped back: one thing fewer to worry about.
A 'complex but ingenious' new set design by Alan Tagg was handed over to the production department where, so Ayckbourn remarked, the metalworkers were less busy than the carpenters. Accordingly they set about the metal inserts that were to strengthen the wooden structure to hold the tank of water. For some reason there was twice as much metal as wood and the structure weighed tons more than it should have done. Instead of the tough but flexible polythene pool-liner, they opted for a rigid fibre-glass tank. This was fatally brittle: one crack from the boat itself was enough to split it right across, which led to gallons of water pouring down into the electrical switch room.
And there were problems with the boat. Tagg had put it on a kind of pendulum which would allow it to do much more sophisticated things than the boat in Scarborough: to rise and fall, swing and turn. It was designed to hold six actors, but staffing agreements at the National meant that at any one time there might be 12 people in it: dressers, props people, stage crew - full staffing gets things done quickly and effectively and all theatres would love it. But Amanda Saunders, whose last job in Scarborough had been stage-managing
Way Upstream, was brought in with an independent production company to manage the period between the play's scheduled opening in August 1982 and its eventual press night on 4 October and she counted 52 people on stage at one point doing an interval set change that had been managed by precisely one person in Scarborough. Rules meant that props staff didn't touch anything that was stage crew's job; stage crew didn't touch anything that was an electrician's job; electricians were different from lighting department; and so on. In the interval new clothes and props had to be set on the boat so everybody was queueing up on the 'river-bank' to get aboard. To make matters worse, the people inside the boat throughout the show - there to operate its movements - started to get disorientation sickness after more than three hours in the pitch dark. None of this became clear until they reached the technical rehearsal on the stage of the Lyttelton Theatre, the proscenium arch auditorium named, ironically, after a former associate of Stephen Joseph.
The hardest thing about
Way Upstream for the actors was the terribly confined space, and the threat of a ducking or injury if they slipped on the boat's roof, but their rehearsals had gone beautifully with a strong cast (which included Jim Norton, Julie Legrand, Susan Fleetwood, Tony Haygarth and James Laurenson) and Alan had left the production side to its own devices. Now the production side seemed unable to deliver what had been designed and wanted to do it differently - but to do it differently he would have to re-rehearse some of the show. Peter Hall was away and Alan refused to send the actors on until the set was fully ready, so he kept cancelling previews. Eventually he took the heartbreaking decision to do it without the water, but even then he still had to go out and tell the assembled audience three times that the show would not go on. There was much laughter on the first two occasions but the audience started to mutter on the third. 'By the time it opened it could never have been a success because it had just turned into a cause célèbre. The play was forgotten under a whole welter of jokes.' The difficulty the National Theatre had in getting it on without flooding the building was gleefully described and the late Jack Tinker, critic of the Daily Mail, turned up to the much-delayed press night wearing his Wellington boots. In Scarborough the anxieties had at least been compressed into a shorter time-scale.
Alan now believes it was too long (it ran three and a quarter hours) but it was, after all, a long journey.

Copyright: Paul Allen. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.