Man of The Moment: BackgroundIn March 1988, Alan Ayckbourn returned to the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, following a two year sabbatical at the National Theatre in London. It had been a period of extraordinary success and acclaim for him as both playwright and director. Despite stating his intentions when he left Scarborough, some privately doubted Alan would return to his adopted home town, particularly after the plaudits he received for his production of Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge and his dark creation A Small Family Business at the National Theatre.
Yet during early 1988, he returned to Scarborough reinvigorated from his time away and with ambitious plans for the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round. Foremost amongst these was his new play, Man Of The Moment, a darkly comic play which would confront morality in the modern world and the amorality of the media in the late 20th century.
Writing The PlayThe inspiration for Man Of The Moment is a frequently cited tale, but one which has altered over time. The most accurate version is probably the story he told to the Scarborough Evening News in his first interview about the play; how he passed a flower-seller under Waterloo Bridge every day on the way to work at the National Theatre, only to discover this was the 'Great Train Robber' Buster Edwards who had become a celebrity since his release from jail. Alan considered it ironic that the Great Train Robbers such as Edwards and Ronnie Biggs had become celebrities, whilst the unfortunate driver of the train, Jack Mills, who had died as a result of the injuries he received that night, had been all but forgotten.
In later years, Alan would alter the story to incorporate the film Buster into the conception of the play, noting how the sight of posters for the film about Buster Edwards had reinforced the irony that a criminal had become a hero. Nice as the latter story is, it isn’t actually strictly true as Buster was not released in British cinemas until 17 September 1988, a month after the play had opened in Scarborough and six months after he had written the play. Alan, with his interest in movies, was no doubt aware the film was being made before he began writing the play and later integrated the film into the play’s conception during interviews.
The play was also conceived with Shakespeare’s Othello in mind. In an interview with the Scarborough Evening News, Alan noted it was planned that he would direct Othello in the West End and his London producer Michael Codron had suggested Alan produce a play of his own that could run in repertory with it. As a result, Man Of The Moment was always intended to go into repertory with the Shakespeare play in London in 1990 with Michael Gambon playing the lead role in both plays [see Other Articles for further information]. Unfortunately this project never came to fruition.
Man Of the Moment was completed on 29 March 1988 and followed in the footsteps of Henceforward… being finished well ahead of schedule. Prior to working at the National Theatre, Alan had tended to write plays at the last possible minute delivering them as rehearsals started. Having had to submit A Small Family Business a year in advance of production, he saw the advantages of no longer writing to a late deadline - particularly with a play which offered so many challenges as Man Of The Moment.
The play is the first - and so far only - Ayckbourn play to be set in a foreign country and sees him continuing to explore wider social issues; which arguably began in 1984 with A Chorus Of Disapproval and has continued ever since. “It does deal with an issue, violence and our response to it. I’m usually know for writing about a lady having an unhappy life in Reading, or someone having a nervous breakdown in a garage. I've come out of the domestic arena. I’ve begun to formulate a few opinions. Until recently I had no opinions whatsoever,” noted the author in an interview at the time.
The play opened at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, on 10 August 1988 with Peter Laird as Vic and Jon Strickland as Douglas. It received predominantly excellent reviews with only The Independent expressing any notable criticism, feeling the characters were not strong enough to carry the themes of the play. The other critics did not agree, although most were quick to jump on the bandwagon that Alan’s plays were getting noticeably darker; something the playwright disagreed with: “The comedy is decidedly black, but, you know, I’ve always written in that vein. People simply didn’t recognise it. Perhaps they didn’t want to.”
The play ran in repertory with The Parasol, an adaptation of a Chekhov short story by Frank Dunai, and as a result posed an additional challenge to the designer as it meant the swimming pool had to be assembled in sections which could be taken apart and put back together once a week! Alan’s designer for the show was Michael Holt - working on only his third Ayckbourn play with the playwright himself (although he had designed the world premiere of Way Upstream) and literally thrown in at the deep end!
The play’s opening inadvertently coincided with the pre-release schedule of the movie Buster, which obviously echoed the play’s theme of glamorising the nation’s villains and, as the critic Michael Billington points out, proved to be extremely topical with the media reporting a row about whether the Royal Family should attend a gala opening of the film, in the light of the fact it celebrated the life of one of the Great Train Robbers. Coincidentally, Alan’s other later play about the media, Drowning On Dry Land (2004), also proved to be inadvertently topical; this play centres on a celebrity accused of having an affair with a clown which destroys his career and it premiered during the media furore about the celebrity couple Victoria and David Beckham and his alleged affair with his PA Rebecca Loos.
Swimming To LondonThere was no debate as to whether the play would be picked up for London as it had always been planned to go into the West End. Even as it opened in Scarborough, casting was already taking place for the transfer still on the assumption it would be opening in repertory with Othello. Michael Gambon had been associated with the play and the role of Douglas since it was written, so it was no great surprise when the news was officially announced that he would be appearing in the play. This was the eighth London premiere of an Ayckbourn play Gambon had appeared in and, as of writing, the most recent (the previous plays were The Norman Conquests trilogy, Just Between Ourselves, Sisterly Feelings, A Chorus Of Disapproval and A Small Family Business. He also appeared in Alan’s 1990 revival of Taking Steps in Scarborough). Although the planned double-bill with Othello fell through, plans moved ahead for Man Of The Moment and Gambon was contracted to appear in the play from 1 February until 18 August 1990, at which point - were the play successful - there would be a recast. Peter Bowles took on the role of Vic Parks, having previously appeared in the London premiere of Absent Friends in 1975, and Samantha Bond, a relative newcomer to the West End stage, played Jill Rillington.
Rehearsals began on 2 January 1990 with the show scheduled to open on 1 February; because of the complexities of building the swimming pool, the company was only able to rehearse on stage from 28 January! The frequent Ayckbourn collaborator, Roger Glossop, was given the task of designing the set for The Globe theatre and overcoming the problem of putting a swimming pool into a traditional theatre. There was quite a lot of media interest in this, as Alan had previously had the misfortune to see Way Upstream flood the National Theatre when the tank used for the play split; no doubt a number of journalists were hoping for a similar accident to occur here, which even Alan felt could be courting disaster. “We could be tempting fate. This one has 36 tons of water in it. It’s one thing to flood the stalls at the National but if this tank goes in Shaftesbury Avenue we could close the Northern Line.”
As it was, there were no such problems and a pool holding 5,000 gallons of water and weighing 36 tonnes was successfully built and later filled by the Fire Brigade, an event covered by many major newspapers [see Archive].
Just prior to the press night on 14 February, Alan was featured in a major television documentary chronicling his career and featuring footage from Man Of The Moment. Michael Billington interviewed Alan for the BBC Arts series Omnibus producing what still stands as one of the most substantive television pieces on the playwright.
The play’s opening night was met with a rapturous response from the audience according to press cuttings and the critics were equally fulsome in their praise for the production and the company, particularly Gambon whose portrayal of Douglas seemed to surprise many critics. It was applauded as a suitable follow-up to Alan's two previous highly acclaimed plays A Small Family Business and Henceforward…. The major nay-sayer was Punch magazine with a fascinating review which seems predicated entirely on dismissing the praises of those reviews which had preceded it. Whilst not particularly constructive or insightful, it ironically illustrates some of the themes of the play, for example illustrating how the media portray people and success, standing as it does so completely at odds with the other reviews.
The main issue with the play was actually beyond Alan’s control and entirely to do with the venue. Alan has long had qualms about the majority of West End theatres, which whilst no doubt reflecting the purpose they were originally built for, are largely not ideal for modern plays and staging demands, with often problematic sight-lines for many seats. This aroused the ire of a number of people watching Man Of The Moment from the upper circle, who complained to Alan. In one case, a man who complained he could see only a third of the show, received £12 of his £18 ticket price back from Alan, who was not slow to communicate his own anger at the situation back to the producer.
The success and praise for the play made it an obvious candidate in the theatre awards season and it was nominated for the Best Play in the prestigious Olivier Awards; the only time an Ayckbourn play has been nominated in this rather than the Best Comedy category. The play did not win, but Gambon received an Olivier for his performance (the second Olivier in three years for Gambon’s work with Ayckbourn, following his Best Actor award for his role in Alan Ayckbourn’s production of A View From The Bridge at the National Theatre). The actor would also win the Theatre Critics’ and the Variety Club’s awards for Best Actor. The actual play received the Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy.
On 1 August the long-awaited water disaster occurred, but only because someone accidentally turned on the fire sprinkler over the stage during the interval. This promptly soaked through the curtains and the remainder of the performance had to be cancelled. There is almost a sense of disappointment in the newspaper report which states that the play was back up and running the next day!
On 18 August, Michael Gambon left the play and a new cast took over the play. Alan Strachan was brought in to redirect the play with Gareth Hunt taking on the role of Vic and Nigel Planer, Douglas. The decision to recast though proved to be a controversial one as within two weeks, Michael Cordon had written to Alan discussing a slump in bookings. Alan, protective of his play and company, could scarcely believe it was the fault of the new company who had barely sunk into the public consciousness nor that it was somehow his fault for not coming to London to re-direct the play. Codron had long been known for having an eclectic view on advertising, largely letting his shows sell themselves, but here Alan felt there was a distinct lack of publicity for the play which was harming both sales and the morale of the company.
Again, it raised serious concerns within Alan's mind about the West End and the way it worked and, with hindsight, one cannot help but feel it was another step towards his prolonged falling out with the West End over the next dozen years. After the perceived lack of success of his next play The Revengers’ Comedies, his plays would not be automatically produced in the West End; although it is debatable whether Alan was ever seriously upset about not having to work in London, where he inevitably did not have complete control over his plays nor the productions.
Despite this, there was serious discussion about touring the play with the producer John Newman. The play’s designer Roger Glossop was consulted on creating a touring version of the West End set, which in all probability put paid to it ever touring. It seems almost impossible to conceive a touring production with a set of this scale - featuring a real swimming pool - that could have been produced and profitable.
Somewhat predictably given that the play deals with television and the media, there has been an almost continuous line of enquiries since 1990 about adapting it for television or the big screen; none of which have ever come to fruition. In many cases, the proposals seem predicated on descriptions of the play, rather than having witnessed or read it first hand, as few seem to consider the difficulties of transferring a play about television onto television without losing its central impact or substantively affecting either the plot or the nature of the play.
The play has been successfully adapted for the radio several times though, in 1992 with Gordon House directing Peter Vaughan as Vic and Jon Strickland as Douglas for the BBC. In 1994, Robert Robinson directed a production for LA Theatre Works featuring Kenneth Dazinger as Douglas and Martin Jarvis as Vic. In 2009, a new radio production, directed by Martin Jarvis, was also broadcast by the BBC with Tim Piggott-Smith as Vic, Alex Jennings as Douglas and Janie Dee as Trudy.
In 2009, Alan Ayckbourn returned to Man Of The Moment to direct it at the Royal & Derngate, Northampton, as part of its Ayckbourn At 70 celebrations. He reunited with the play’s original designer Michael Holt to stage a proscenium arch production of the play featuring Malcolm Sinclair as Vic. The play was the final production in the celebration and drew extremely favourable reviews.
Unfortunately, Man Of The Moment is not as frequently staged as other Ayckbourn plays, largely one suspects because of the many challenges it poses for production, such as the size of the cast and the logistical challenges of the swimming pool. This does not detract from the fact that it remains one of Alan Ayckbourn’s most important works of the 1980s and which is as pertinent as ever to society today.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.