About a month ago an intriguing email from Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, otherwise known as Alan Ayckbourn’s theatre, arrived in my inbox. “Hi, Nick…Alan is reluctant to do press interviews, but he’s willing to do an interview with you. He has suggested something in case you think a straight interview has gotten a bit old hat. His new play, The Karaoke Theatre Company, requires high levels of audience participation... He wondered if you would like to be involved in a run through at his private rehearsal rooms at his home.”
Right. First, an interview with Britain’s most performed playwright after Shakespeare is never going to be “old hat”. Ayckbourn is one of the most gentle and gently inspiring interviewees it has ever been my pleasure to encounter.
Secondly, and much more importantly, “high levels of audience participation?”
It was too good an offer to refuse.
A month later I’m at Ayckbourn’s house in Scarborough, standing on stage in front of an invited audience, making loving eyes at actor Andy Cryer as I take on the role of lovelorn Arabella.
Sisters is one of several – very funny – sketches that appear in The Karaoke Theatre Company. Having been selected as an audience “volunteer” by the company to sit in the special guest star seat and watch it performed as it should be, I’m then asked at the end of the sketch which role would I like to play. The domineering father? His beautiful youngest daughter? Her lisping suitor?
It had to be Arabella, the jealous older sister who schemes to ensure that true love will not for her younger sibling run smooth. Ten minutes later Sisters is being performed again and this time I’m on the stage as Arabella. I can feel myself sweating.
Five minutes into the sketch I’m mugging at the audience, playing up to the part and holding hands with the man I hope to make fall in love with me. Or rather, the man I hope to make fall in love with my character.
When the email I received that precipitated this odd Thursday afternoon arrived, it said The Karaoke Theatre Company was unlike anything that Ayckbourn had done before.
It wasn’t wrong. It’s also quite difficult to adequately describe. In the conceit that Ayckbourn has created, the actors of The Karaoke Theatre Company are a real theatre company.
As the performance begins they arrive on stage and play the kind of games that will be familiar to those who remember Whose Line is It Anyway? It’s the kind of thing that happens in actual rehearsal rooms – there is a game of tennis played with a pretend ball and various other actorly warm-ups.
Watching on from the sidelines, like a benevolent Don Corleone in a large green leather chair and huge slippers, is Ayckbourn. The flesh these days is weaker but as the actors perform their apparently improvised lines, he mouths along with every word. He’s as razor sharp as ever.
As he watches, the action unfolds. The audience members are enlisted first of all to provide sound effects for a short farce. We compliantly make the sound of a creaking stair, a doorbell and a police siren.
It’s easy to forget that the short plays that make up The Karaoke Theatre Company are in and of themselves lovely little Ayckbournian vignettes. You’re so engrossed in your involvement in the action that you can get a little distracted from simply enjoying the master’s work on show.
The action – and participation – builds to the end of the first act, which comes to a close when I join the company on stage for a bow. Or a delicate curtsey. It seemed appropriate.
During the break for the interval, I sit with Ayckbourn. His schoolboy chuckle, an always endearing facet of his personality, is much in evidence. “My maxim has always been ‘scare yourself’ and with this I’m absolutely terrified,” he laughs. “For the first time I have absolutely no idea if it’s going to work.”
It does. In fact, it really works because the audience participation element of the show is far more than just a gimmick. There is a moment early on in the play, almost in the prologue, where one of the actors says that this performance, the one we are watching right now, can only ever happen once. The following night a different audience will bring something different to the stage and therefore the performance. In fact, what Ayckbourn has really written is a love letter to theatre.
He laughs with a “you’ve got me” raising of his eyebrows. “It’s one of my big tenets, it always has been, that the special thing about theatre is that it is live. Every 10 years a group of us sit down and collectively ask ‘is theatre worth pursuing?’ Now that the other media can outstrip us in every way, particularly with CGI and the like, it is a more relevant question than ever.
“The only thing that we have, the thing that separates us from all other media, is that we are live. So you have to think about how do we make the most of that?
“All we can do is put five or six breathing, real human beings on stage with several hundred other breathing, real human beings in the audience and create something there and then.”
That special something theatre can do, existing only in the moment, is something Ayckbourn has played around with previously. “It’s been there all the time with my apparently random plays,” he says. “From House and Garden, where the cast appear in two plays simultaneously, to Sisterly Feelings, where a coin was tossed and the choice of action decided on heads or tales, I kept saying to the audience, subliminally I hope, this is live, this is live. You won’t see anything like this on film or television because this is only happening now, here and for you.”
Ayckbourn then reveals something else about his new play. “You know technically this is my 80th play?”
No. No I didn’t. “Well no, we’re saying Consuming Passions is my 80th, but this is technically number 80. I’ve subtitled it ‘A Party’. Which I think is what it is really.”
Watching Ayckbourn in rehearsal, laughing along, tapping his foot to the music, enjoying my performance (he told me so), you realise that the 77-year-old really is enjoying a bit of a party.
“Working with a room full of actors gives you such energy, such feedback. I feel like a spaceship gaining momentum by circling a planet’s orbit. They’re the planets and I’m a spaceship,” he says. There’s the laugh again.
I do still wonder why he’s written something so off the wall. “Why do people climb mountains or do other barmy things? It’s as much to do with the supply of adrenalin as anything else.”
He then says something that will gladden the heart of all fans and perhaps provide inspiration to anyone pursuing any endeavour. Remembering this is the multi-award winning playwright’s 80th play, it is extraordinary that he then says: “Maybe I will learn a lot from writing something like this and perhaps it will inform my next plays.”
The only thing left to ask was, what did he think of my Arabella?
“Yes, thanks for joining in.”
I’m still waiting for the call.
• This summer at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
The Karaoke Theatre Company. From July 8 to Oct 7.
Henceforward: A revival of the 1987 play, which went to the West End in 1988 where it starred Ian McKellen and Jane Asher and won the Evening Standard Best Comedy Award. Sept 8 to Oct 8.
Consuming Passions: A comedy in two parts – Premonitions and Repercussions – which can be seen as separate, approximately 50-minute shows in the SJT’s Bistro at lunchtimes from August 5 to September 8, or as an evening double bill in the McCarthy from September 16 to October 8.
For tickets call the box office on 01723 370541, sjt.org.uk.