Time And Time Again: Background

Time And Time Again is a pivotal moment in Alan Ayckbourn’s playwriting career. When first performed, critics saw it as a move away from light-comedy into something darker and more substantial. While the West End successes of Relatively Speaking and How The Other Half Loves gave Alan widespread recognition, it was Time And Time Again and the plays which immediately followed it, which confirmed that Alan was much more than just the farceur some critics has already (and incorrectly) labelled him.

Alan's previous play had been the technically complex and not entirely successful
Family Circles (originally The Story So Far...), in the wake of that he saw a production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya which made him aspire to write a play whose drama came completely from the characters without the need for any plot contrivances. He also wanted to write a play that broke a golden rule of the well-made play by having a hero who was totally unmotivated, had no goals and achieved nothing. This was the inspiration for Time And Time Again and it's most memorable creation, Leonard, a man who causes destruction around him by sole virtue of his apathy sets the template for many inadvertently destructive men that follow such as Norman in The Norman Conquests and Colin in Absent Friends.

To Alan’s mind, this play was the one where he began to dispense with jokes or funny-lines, which he said he was “never very good at”. It also lacked many of the technical devices his earlier plays had been noted for - although that is not to say he abandoned them entirely - and it is the first of many Ayckbourn plays to integrate water into the set with an ornamental pond. The play was apparently written over six days in June 1971.

Time And Time Again premiered at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, on 8 July 1971 with Alan directing. It was his only contribution to The Library Theatre's repertory season that year; in 1969 and 1970 he had been the Director Of Productions at the theatre, but in 1971 Caroline Smith took over the job with Alan becoming the full-time Artistic Director of the company in 1972. The cast was notable for the inclusion of Christopher Godwin, making his first appearance in an Ayckbourn play in Scarborough. Alan had met Christopher in 1964 prior to Alan's first West End play Mr Whatnot and they had struck up a friendship. Christopher played the pivotal role of Leonard and would become a significant part of the Scarborough company until 1977. Not only was he the first actor to perform the role of Leonard, he was also the first person to play Norman in The Norman Conquests, Colin in Absent Friends and Dennis in Just Between Ourselves amongst others.

The critics were practically unanimous in their praise for the play and, more importantly, noted that with its darker edge and concentration on character, Alan was not just a writer of light comedy as he had been previously categorised (with the exception of
The Stage newspaper, whose review was bizarrely just a synopsis of the play). It was the first step into the tragi-comedy genre that defines so much of the playwright's output and for which he has become renowned. Interestingly, Alan feels audiences have never found Time And Time Again quite so dark and he once said that “compared with the plays that followed, it’s positively frivolous.”

It was a great success at the Library Theatre and the most popular play of the 1971 season. It was inevitable there would be interest from London producers and, in hindsight,
Time And Time Again was a critical step in Alan's relationship with London. Prior to 1971, Alan's West End producer had been Peter Bridge who had transferred Mr Whatnot, Relatively Speaking and How The Other Half Loves to London. Mr Whatnot had been a disaster, Relatively Speaking an unexpected hit and How The Other Half Loves more financially successfully than anyone could have dreamed. However, How The Other Half Loves had become a vehicle for the actor Robert Morley and the ensemble nature and subtleties of the play had been bulldozed by Morley. True, the play had been an enormous success, but it had done the play and the playwright no favours artistically. For Time And Time Again, change was in the air. Despite How The Other Half Loves' success, Peter Bridge had had financial difficulties in the interim and Alan was advised not to work with him. Meanwhile Michael Codron, an experienced London producer with a strong reputation for bringing new writing to the London stage, had expressed an interest in producing an Ayckbourn play. Having read Time And Time Again, he wrote to Alan saying he'd "enjoyed it more than any comedy I've read for ages" and hoped to produce the play. Michael was also keen to treat the play seriously and although he would not let Alan direct the production, he made the inspired suggestion of Eric Thompson. Alan and Eric hit it off immediately and began a relationship that would see Eric direct the next six London productions of Alan’s work. Further bolstering Codron's intent, Tom Courtenay was cast as Leonard achieving a balance between a known box office name and someone who would treat the role intelligently and not dominate the play. Again, it was an inspired piece of casting and there is little doubt it was a major reason why Courtenay was later cast as Norman in the acclaimed London premiere of The Norman Conquests.

The play opened in Brighton for a two week try-out before transferring to the West End, moving into the Comedy Theatre where Terence Frisby's
There's A Girl In My Soup had recently finished a record-breaking run of 2,547 performances as the longest running comedy of all time in the UK. Time And Time Again, which opened on 16 August 1972, did not quite match this as it only ran for six months, but it received very positive notices, did strong business and - most importantly - Alan believed it to be the best West End transfer of one of his plays so far. In Thompson and Codron, there was a sense he had found a director and producer who would look after his plays in the West End; Codron would go on to produce the majority of Alan's West End plays between 1972 and 2002.

As soon as it ended its London run,
Time And Time Again was published by Samuel French and released for professional production. By this point, Alan's previous successes meant there was a guaranteed interest in producing the play by repertory theatres in the UK and within four months, the play had being produced by 13 different venues. In March 1974, it embarked on its first major UK tour produced by Cameron Macintosh and directed by Roy Patrick, with James Bolam playing Leonard.

Amidst all this, there was interest in adapting it for television and the director Casper Wrede had been in touch with Alan's agent Margaret 'Peggy' Ramsay in 1975 about Anglia Television producing it. Peggy thought the idea sounded interesting, but thought no more of it as did Alan who had also informally spoken with Wrede before becoming embroiled in the troubles surrounding his and Andrew Lloyd-Webber's musical
Jeeves. A day after the musical opened in 1975, a cast-member informed Alan that Time And Time Again was being produced by Anglia Television with Michael Gambon cast as Leonard. This was news to Alan and Peggy! Tom Courtenay had meanwhile heard the same news and was upset that he apparently hadn't even been considered for the role for which he won much acclaim. Alan was apparently outraged as even at this stage in his career, he had clauses for approval over director, cast and script over any major productions or adaptations. With no contracts or any written agreement, Peggy discovered that ATV had gone ahead with Casper Wrede signed to direct a version of Alan's play which had never been agreed to. Peggy, ever protective of her clients, wrote a sharp letter to Wrede which must have had a sobering effect as two days later Anglia Television issued a contract which gave Alan casting and script approval. With the adaptation on firmer ground, Tom Courtenay agreed to reprise his role of Leonard and the majority of the West End cast was brought back together. It was filmed in August 1975 before being broadcast on 18 May 1976 and publicity from the time infers at least one major change was made to the play with the inclusion of the hapless cricket match with an MCC cricket advisor being brought in for filming. Unfortunately, the film was never subsequently repeated in the UK (although it was shown on PBS in North America in June 1976) and research indicates it is not held in archive or probably even survives.

Despite its obvious popularity in the UK,
Time And Time Again has never found much success in America and is one of the few Ayckbourn plays from this period not to have been produced on Broadway (or as far as this author is aware, even in New York as a whole). Suggestions for the reason for this range from a lack of comprehension of so passive a character as Leonard to its emphasis on cricket. This is not to say it has not been successfully staged abroad and when Alan revived it at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, in 1986, the production was toured extensively in Canada the following year.

In 2005, Alan revived the play at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, with Giles New playing Leonard to strong notices. With this production,
Time And Time Again became the first play that Alan had directed in all three of company's venues in Scarborough at the Library Theatre, the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round and the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

Time And Time Again is now regarded as vintage Ayckbourn and has become one of the perennials of the Ayckbourn canon, being frequently revived and performed by professionals and amateurs alike.

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

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