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.

Royal Society Of Literature - In Conversation With Alan Ayckbourn

On 22 May 2017, Alan Ayckbourn participated in a Royal Society of Literature event at the British Library. During the expansive talk, he touched upon his experiences with Way Upstream at the National Theatre.

Alan Ayckbourn
The Lyttlelton stage crew were pretty aggressive to a man at that point [1970s / 1980s] - and they kept saying, ‘don’t forget they did it in Scarborough. Bloody Scarborough.’ We did Way Upstream in Scarborough first and it didn’t leak and we had a boat and it moved about - got stuck very occasionally - but when it went big at the National Theatre….

I remember doing a lovely rehearsal at the National Theatre. We had nice rehearsals and they were such fun, we had a little wooden boat in the rehearsal room and somebody pushed it about. At the end, we all said, ‘we’ll see you on Tuesday for the technical rehearsal,’ ‘oh yeah, looking forward to that.’ And I remember walking into the National early on the Monday morning and meeting two guys from the London Fire Brigade coming out and one of them saying, ‘I don’t think they calculated the weight of water…’. And I thought, ‘oh shit’. So when I got there, there was the Production Manager - Roger Hulley - in waders standing there saying, ‘we’re not quite ready, Alan’ and I said, ‘what’s not quite ready, Roger?’ and he said, ‘it’ll be an hour or so’ and someone muttered ‘a week or so.’ And technicals went on and on and on and I kept cancelling the previews.

I remember once Peter Hall - who obviously has a knack of not being there when there’s a real emergency - he was doing the Ring Cycle in Salzburg or somewhere. So he ran me very breezily and said, ‘how’s it going?’ I said, ‘well Peter it’s not going. I’ve just cancelled the matinee and I’m about to cancel the evening show.’ I remember there was this terrible silence on the other end before he said, ‘you’ve cancelled the matinee and the evening show?’ I said, ‘I think its dangerously unsafe and if one of the cast doesn’t drown then one of the audience is possibly going to…’. So I remember him saying, ‘I’m coming, I’m coming back, hold everyone there, stay there.’ So I said we’ve just been working on the show and by coincidence, the Olivier was also shut for a technical rehearsal, so there was no audience there and I remember sitting there with one of two of the tech team waiting for Peter to arrive. And we availed ourselves of the Olivier hospitality cupboard and were drinking away through the complementary gins and whiskies, getting sozzled. I watched all the lights going out in the whole theatre until it switched off and I realised that single-handedly I had closed the National Theatre for the evening. And Peter came in with his briefcase and he said, ‘thank you for staying. What’s the problem?’ and the crew reported one by one and Roger reported in last of all and I just sat there. Peter than did his Peter hall thing and said he’s going to come up with a solution: ‘ If I was faced with this problem and had a room full of people, I could not think of anyone more suitable to solve this problem than you gentleman, thank you.’ And I remember someone muttered, ‘thanks a bunch’, and off he went and we never solved it.

We opened in previews and they kept saying, ‘Alan would you mind going on and saying we can’t go on with the second half for another 40 minutes.’ The first time I went out and I said, ‘hello everyone, I’m the author - clap, clap - thank you, I’m so sorry, you’ve been a super audience in the first half but obviously we’ve still got a fef technical problems and we’re just going to be another 45 minutes before the second half starts, but if you be patient and hang on and have a drink in the bar, it’ll really be worth your while. Thank you very much.’ That was the first preview, then the second preview: ‘Hello, it’s me again…’, by then people are rebooking and the audience was getting slightly more hostile. ‘Not again, not again.’ And by the fifth or sixth preview, I was starting to get the boos and then someone said to me on the seventh preview, ‘can you do it again?’ and I said, ‘no way am I going out there again, someone else can do it!’

So it went on and on and Peter rang me when I got back to Scarborough - as I had another production to do - and he said, ‘Alan, no longer can we not do your play any more in the Lyttelton theatre, we cannot do any plays in the Lyttelton Theatre. The water has now leaked and warped the stage and the thing has buckled and the stage mechanism is ruined.’ The main problem was the main switch unit for the entire National Theatre - all the important switch gear - was under the Lyttelton stage. There was a huge plastic chute, which had to be constructed to take the leaking water round this pulsating electrical equipment - ‘danger, 4000 vaults’ - and pumping it straight back into the Thames. So it was quite an extraordinary experience and as Jack Tinker turned up in his wellington boots, we knew we were on a losing wicket really. Unfortunately then the technology took over from the play and it got lost in a welter of funny reviews. Everyone had good fun at its expense.

I said to you earlier that if you’re going to write a memoir of theatre, always have a good disaster somewhere along your CV because they make the very best stories. Whoever heard a theatre person saying, ‘I was in this tremendously successful production of Hamlet… and that was it. Nothing to be said…’

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