Way Upstream: Background

It would be apt to say that Way Upstream marked a watershed for Alan Ayckbourn as a writer. It is a play which steps away from the suburban house-bound settings Alan was well-known for and moves into a wider world; both in the context of Alan's writing and the play itself. It is the point from which it becomes increasingly difficult to pin Alan down to a specific genre of play-writing or even to say what a typical Ayckbourn play is. Much as the play heads upstream away from Alan's fictional town of Pendon into metaphorical and fantasy waters, so he begins to explore new territory as a playwright.

The significance of
Way Upstream within the context of Alan's writing was initially largely lost due to a certain notoriety. Firstly, the mis-judged accusation that Alan had ventured into the realms of Political writing when the play premiered and, secondly, when the play transferred to the National Theatre with a production that became well-known for its technical difficulties. Yet since the 2000s, the play has been re-evaluated and recognised for its departure from what came before; that it is a play that tackles morality, the nature of leadership, how ordinary people deal with extraordinary situations, the abuse of power and the nature of relationships in a marriage. It is a play ripe for interpretation which also celebrates the essential liveness and fun of theatre.

Alan cites several inspirations for writing the play including a desire to explore the nature of leadership and why some people consider themselves leaders and others don't; particularly when the latter are probably far more suited to the role than the former. He also began to tackle concepts of good and evil for the first time, bringing a moral element to his plays which continues to this day. The play introduces the first of Alan's 'evil' characters in the shape of Vince, an almost supernatural figure in his desire to subvert and destroy convention and the lives of those he encounters. His motives are made more frightening still by deliberately having no explanation or apparent motivation other than, perhaps, sadistic pleasure. His third inspiration encompassed the idea of how the people in a relationship are intrinsically connected and what happens to one affects the other.

What definitely did not inspire the play was the political situation in the UK at the time. When the play premiered, a minority of critics accused it of being a political piece in favour of the recently formed Social Democratic Party.* The writer Michael Holt pinpoints The Guardian critic Robin Thornber as being critical in this perception with his quote: “Philosophically, it’s a plug for the soggy centrism of the Social Democratic Party.” In retrospect, Thornber’s critique tells us more about his own political leanings and his desire to imprint them on the play rather than his ability to make an incisive or objective critique of the playwright's actual intentions. Alan has always maintained he is an apolitical writer and is on frequent record for his lack of interest in party politics; he wasn't even voting at general elections during this period. He has suggested in the past the play was rather borne out of a disenchanted view of the country at the time and of the “nebulous hate” he perceived emerging in aspects of society.
Way Upstream may well be about the state of the nation, but it is not about the political state of the nation.

One suspects that to a great many theatre-goers, the play is remembered best as the one on a boat; which is actually a vital element of the play's interest and success. Since
Sisterly Feelings in 1989, Alan has emphasised in interviews how theatre should celebrate its unique live element - certainly when being compared to television and film. Sisterly Feelings had introduced an element of chance and spontaneity into performance, Way Upstream introduced the spectacular into his plays. Even today, it is hard not to be impressed by Way Upstream when entering a theatre to see a boat floating on a flooded stage, accompanied by thunderous down-pours of rain. Way Upstream is an early example of what Alan would later term his 'event' plays.

Alan began writing the play at the start of September 1981 with rehearsals scheduled for mid-way through the same month. With only four weeks before the opening of the play at the
Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, Alan showed the script to his designer Edward Lipscomb and began discussing what the theatre needed to design and build. Alan had set challenges before, but the scale of this - flooding the auditorium, building a watertight and movable boat, creating a localised downpour - was above and beyond anything he'd previously written, particularly given such a short deadline.

Extraordinarily, there was no delay and everything was completed on time largely with the help of local businesses and manufacturers who gamely stepped up to the challenge too. The only major setback was the technical rehearsal for the play did not take place until the actual opening day, finishing just 25 minutes before the show had its opening performance! With the exception of the cancellation of the first preview to accommodate the technical rehearsal, it is remarkable to think no performance was cancelled during the play's original run at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round and that it was a technical triumph achieved on a shoestring budget. It was also a resounding hit with Scarborough audiences and performed to a sell-out run at the theatre. The first night audience - full of Scarborough people who had worked on everything from building the cruiser to designing the winch system for movement - apparently cheered as the boat moved away from its moorings for the first time.

Unfortunately from a critical perspective, the play’s ideas seem to have largely been lost in admiration for the technical achievement of the piece and the issue of the first full nudity seen on stage at the venue; the regional newspapers particularly obsessed with the idea that a naked body could appear in an Ayckbourn play on a Scarborough stage. It would only be in later years that the content of the play itself would genuinely be considered. With regard to the brief nudity at the climax of the play, Alan himself was unsure about its inclusion but found reassurance from his partner - now wife - Heather Stoney. She felt very strongly that the nudity was not misplaced nor could be viewed as gratuitous as - in the context of the play - it is an entirely innocent act and an affirming action for the characters.

Alan then toured the play with the Scarborough company to Houston, Texas. Considering the difficulties that beset the play at the National Theatre the following year, it is remarkable to consider that the play - again on a minimal budget - was toured to the USA and presented without a hitch at the Alley Theatre, Houston, for two months in repertoire with
Absent Friends. Although it was largely enthusiastically received by audiences, Alan has never been quite sure how it went down as feedback ranged from people walking out in disgust at the nudity to one person making the perceptive observation he felt he had just seen the Bible told in reverse (actually, quite a valid interpretation of the play). At the very least, Alan must have been proud of his company in tackling so successfully such an ambitious transfer.

Back in England, the subject of the play's inevitable transfer to London was the issue. Alan had been in contact with Peter Hall, Artistic Director of the National Theatre, about producing another play at the venue and Hall had the first option on his latest play,
Way Upstream. However, Alan was so nervous about it - both in content and whether it would work technically - he would not let anyone read the play until after it opened in Scarborough. Alan need not have worried, Hall was very enthusiastic about Way Upstream and suggested it could be staged in The Olivier at the National Theatre from August 1982. Alan, having discussed it with his London designer Alan Tagg, suggested it might be better in the more compact Lyttelton auditorium, preferably in January 1983. He also initially hoped to cast Penelope Wilton as Emma, but this was not to be (Wilton had previously appeared as Annie in the Greenwich Theatre production of The Norman Conquests and as Abigail in the National Theatre's production of Sisterly Feelings).

As it was, Alan got his wish to stage it in the Lyttelton and - despite his hectic schedule - agreed to direct the play for August 1982. What followed gave the play an unexpected notoriety and the National Theatre many headlines of the wrong kind. With more resources and a larger budget (the budget for the boat alone was more than the entire production budget in Scarborough apparently), a more ambitious production was planned for the National. Alan Tagg designed a set which was more complex and impressive than the original, but which should not have been beyond the resources of the venue; if only that had been the case.

Alarm bells should have begun ringing when Alan met the technical departments at the NT and offered advice from his own experiences in Scarborough (see
Staging). This was turned down with the suggestion the venue was more than capable of handling the play's demands. It was either a very arrogant or very misguided decision and many of the problems which followed were either predicted or warned of by both Alan Ayckbourn and Tagg. The wooden frame was built for the set and water-tank, which was then supplemented by so many metal supports to strengthen it, the set weighed several tons more than expected. The interior of the frame was then fitted with a rigid, but obviously brittle, fibre-glass tank which could be split into several parts for storage as the play was actually in repertory. Both these issues had come up in Scarborough with the decision to drop repertory performances for the play's run and deciding the best way to contain the water was with a tough but flexible lining rather than a solid tank.

The fibre-glass tank was the single biggest problem. It held 6,000 gallons of water and when the boat accidentally collided with it during previews, the tank split and dumped its water into the electrical switch room beneath the auditorium, closing the National Theatre. Other issues were no less notable but equally problematic. The boat itself was far larger and more complex than the Scarborough boat and all its movements were controlled by three people inside the boat, rather than off-stage. Unfortunately no-one had considered what three hours in an enclosed dark space would do to the stage crew. They quickly became disorientated and couldn't control the boat. This wasn't insurmountable, but the crew in the boat were notoriously never entirely happy with the situation. Added to this, the play was massively over-staffed due to the inflexibility of the theatre's working rules; at one point it was recorded that 52 people were involved in the interval stage change, which had been handled by just one person in Scarborough. Bigger was definitely not better in this case.

Way Upstream was scheduled to open on 18 August 1982 at the National Theatre and rehearsals had actually gone very well. Given Alan's schedule and believing the play was in good shape, he had returned to Scarborough to concentrate on his commitments there. He was in Scarborough when news of the problems - and the proposed solutions - reached him. He quickly returned to London, assessed the situation and refused to allow the production to go ahead. With Peter Hall away, Alan made the decision he had to cancel previews in the hope the issues could be addressed. The opening night was re-scheduled for 3 September, but this was also cancelled. Alan had meanwhile taken the difficult decision of agreeing to let several preview performances take place without water in the tank. The media were quick to report on all that happened, making what was a difficult situation look many more times worse than it probably was. Eventually the play opened - complete with water - on 4 October. Although the technical difficulties appeared to have been solved, a week later a small fire damaged the fibre glass tank and several performances had to take place without water again.

By the time
Way Upstream actually opened, the press had already had a field day with back-stage issues and were arguably not really interested in what the play was about or, ultimately, its quality. Reviews were hugely mixed and ranged from poor to excellent. With the benefit of hindsight, it perhaps marked the first time the critics truly turned against Ayckbourn as they sensed an easy target. Certainly some of the criticism - which variously derides the playwright for having ideas above his station, wanting to become a major playwright and being nothing more than a commercial, second rate comedy writer amongst others, as well as digs at his ambitions and home town of Scarborough - do, with hindsight, tend to reveal more about the prejudices of the critics than an objective and insightful critique into whether Way Upstream was genuinely a good or bad play in their eyes.

Fortunately, the public's curiosity was piqued and they proved to be very loyal to the play and the playwright. As it settled into repertory, Alan was heartened to see just how enthusiastic audiences were. This was not reported by the press, nor ultimately how well the play did despite it's misfortunes. By the time the play closed, it had run for 63 performances, which had been seen by 42,045 people (75% of the Lyttelton's capacity) and it had grossed £236,000.

In the aftermath of the production, it was reported there had been a serious split within the National Theatre regarding the budget of the play and Peter Hall's decision to mount it; with implications that certain elements within the venue had actively worked against the play. Whether this is true or not, there was no doubt damage had been done to both the play and the National Theatre's reputation. For many years, the play would in the eyes of the media most commonly be associated with how it flooded the National Theatre.

Yet despite its apparent reputation, demand for the play was immediately high from professional repertory theatres often with clever solutions when venues were not able to flood the auditorium. In early 1984, the play's first regional repertory production opened on 4 May in a co-production between the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, and the Churchill Theatre, Bromley; this was a dry production featuring a boat on a revolve and gimbal to simulate movement on water. This was followed soon after by the play's first UK tour with Duncan Weldon producing another 'dry' production directed by Val May and Christopher Masters.
Way Upstream was published by Samuel French in 1983 and has been frequently tackled by amateur companies as well. The play has remained surprisingly popular with both professional and amateur companies and has even been staged as an outdoor production several times on rivers or canals with real cabin cruisers.

In 1987, the BBC adapted the play for television under the direction of playwright and director Terry Johnson. It's an interesting example of how a well-made film - which is entertaining enough on its own terms - can deviate from the source material. Despite Johnson's passion for the play, it is very much his interpretation of a play by Alan Ayckbourn rather than an absolutely faithful adaptation of the source material. Filmed on location on an actual cabin cruiser, the film ran at 90 minutes losing more than an hour of material from the play's original running time. The main impact of this is the transition from reality to fantasy, which is quite subtle and very slowly introduced into the play, was more abrupt and uncomfortable in the film and takes place through a surreal dream sequence. The loss of material also affected much of the humour to the film's detriment, which even today feels unduly violent. The film was premiered at the London Film Festival at the National Film Theatre in 1987 before its transmission on BBC1 on 1 January 1988. It was generally well-received though and is still well-remembered, although it has never been made available commercially by the BBC.

In 1997, the BBC World Service also broadcast a radio adaptation of the play, directed by Gordon House. The excellent ensemble cast featured Adam Godley, Samantha Bond, Neil Pearson and Russell Dixon. It is unfortunately one of the most rarely heard of the Ayckbourn radio adaptations and unlike many of the BBC's radio adaptations, has been repeated infrequently since 1999.

In 2003, Alan decided to revive the play at the
Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, to mark its 21st anniversary. If anything this was even more technically impressive than previous productions, but the emphasis was on the opportunity to re-evaluate the play itself in a production which satisfied Alan. The critical response was excellent, the play judged on its merits rather than just as a notorious technical tour de force.

Produced more frequently than might be expected for a play with such challenges - including some extremely inventive 'dry' productions - there have been two notable productions in recent years with Salisbury Playhouse's 2011 revival and Chichester Festival Theatre's revival in 2015 (which featured an exceptional design by Ben Stone). Both extremely well-received by critics, they have demonstrated there is much to be appreciated about the play that was lost as a result of the issues with the National Theatre's production and its significance in the Ayckbourn play canon.

* On 25 January 1981, four senior Labour politicians announced an intent to leave the Labour party and to start a new socialist council. Known as the Limehouse Declaration, this led to the founding of the Social Democratic Party in March 1981 and the SDP-Liberal Alliance in autumn 1981. This had the effect of introducing a significant third major political party into British politics.

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