Mr A's Amazing Maze Plays: BackgroundDuring the Christmases of 1961 and 1962, Alan Ayckbourn premiered two plays for children, Dad’s Tale and Christmas V Mastermind. They were, for a variety of reasons, unsuccessful and the playwright came to the conclusion he was not suited to write plays for children. With the exception of a one act play called Ernie’s Incredible Illucinations (which - statistically - is probably the most performed play Alan Ayckbourn has ever written), he did not revisit the genre until 1988.
By this point, Alan was arguably regarded as one of the most successful living English playwrights and had just completed a string of critically and commercially successful plays in Scarborough and London; the likes of which had led many people to re-evaluate Alan as both a playwright and director. It was at this point that Alan decided to explore another avenue of writing which would have a profound effect on his future work.
Alan had increasingly noticed parents were bringing their children, often quite young, to his plays in Scarborough. What surprised him was, by and large, the youngsters took in all that was presented and seemed to enjoy it. This intrigued Alan as although the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round was presenting children’s plays, they were largely obvious, safe and restricted to Saturday mornings and Christmas. Alan was convinced children’s theatre could be so much more and that playwrights and theatres were underestimating not only a potential new audience, but the potential adult audience of the future. He believed the theatre should explore this avenue and that he both should and could write a play that did not patronise his younger audience, which would also share the same, full production values of any of his other plays. Alan wanted to write a play that was essentially an adult story pared down to the basics and moving at a faster pace. Many of the familiar themes of his plays would also remain in place.
The result was Mr A’s Amazing Maze Plays which was produced for the Christmas of 1988 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough. As promised - and as with all his plays for families - the production values were high and the resident company were cast. The play was performed on the same set as the theatre’s production of The Turn Of The Screw, which ran concurrently with Mr A’s Amazing Maze Plays. It was a particularly ambitious play, not just because it was Alan's first serious stab at writing for young people, but in the complexities it presented in staging. The plot - in essence - involves the young heroine Suzy and her dog, Neville, searching for Neville’s stolen bark which has been taken by the villain, Mr Accousticus. During the second act, Suzy and Neville enter the villain’s house and the audience take over the play. In every location, Suzy has a choice of where to go and the audience make the decision, judged by the play’s two narrators. The play has a large number of potential paths through the house and The Cabinet Of Sounds is not necessarily in the same place for each performance. In addition, the audience must remember which rooms Suzy visited and in what order as Suzy has to be guided out of the house when she has succeeded in finding Neville’s bark. The theme of interactivity and chance was already common to Alan through plays such as Sisterly Feelings and It Could Be Any One Of Us, but this took matters to an extreme with the cast very much in the hands of the audience. Alan has frequently said he wanted children to experience the magic and potential of live theatre and this play is an experience for all involved; emphasising the live nature of theatre has something which the playwright has become increasingly preoccupied with.
The play was a great success for the Scarborough venue and became the first of many family plays written by Alan; its successor Invisible Friends cemented this interest becoming the first of his family plays to be staged at the National Theatre and drawing widespread acclaim. It also began a real commitment to theatre for young people by the company, which became increasingly visible when the company moved to its new home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 1996.
Mr A’s Amazing Maze Plays is notable for introducing a number of themes that recur in Alan’s family plays: the young heroine; the absent father; the quest; responsibility; morality. Paul Allen, Alan’s biographer, suggests the plays are biographical and cast light on his childhood. This is obviously debatable - with the possible obvious exception of the absent father theme - but it is worth noting how these themes and others are tackled with increasing complexity with each of the family plays, as is how Alan is never willing to underestimate his young audience and is constantly pushing them to see how far they will journey with him in his writing. This, arguably, reaches its apex with My Sister Sadie (2003), a play which challenges its young audience to consider sibling loss, weapons of mass destruction, abuse of technology and morality amongst other themes.
Although the National Theatre showed an early interest in producing Mr A's Amazing Plays in London, the actual London premiere was staged by Polka Children's Theatre on 30 September 1989; a production which is often overlooked, although Alan was apparently not convinced by the Edwardian influenced design decisions.
The success of the play led to it being revived in Scarborough in 1993 in a production which won the TMA Regional Theatre Awards for Best Show for Children and Young People. In the same year, it opened at the National Theatre where new Artistic Director, Richard Eyre, was committed to theatre for children, leading to Alan directing both Mr A’s Amazing Maze Plays and Invisible Friends at the NT. Reviews were largely positive and there was much media interest in Alan’s decision to write for children. The play had a successful run in London and the National took it out on tour. It has since become a very popular play with both professional and amateur companies and Alan revived it again in 2006 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
It is easy to dismiss Alan’s writing for families, yet to do so would be to do a disservice to both the playwright and his plays. Mr A’s Amazing Maze Plays marks an important step for Alan which affects all his subsequent writing. The most obvious result of the success of Mr A’s Amazing Maze Plays was Alan’s increasing commitment to writing new work for young people and his vigorous support for children’s theatre; but it also affected his ‘adult’ plays. The success of Mr A’s Amazing Maze Plays led Alan to increasingly introduce fantastic elements into his work, positive an audience was willing to take the plunge. Certainly from 1988 onwards, Alan’s plays embrace the extraordinary as a means to tell his stories; within just the period from 1988 to the company’s move to the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 1996, Alan would write amongst others Body Language, Wildest Dreams, Dreams From A Summer House, Communicating Doors, Haunting Julia and A Word From Our Sponsor. All of which use the extraordinary and the fantastic as a major ingredient to heighten Alan’s exploration of his common themes.
It has also become increasingly difficult to separate the two strands of Alan’s writing career and he now considers his family plays to be just as important as his ‘adult’ work, noting they are largely dealing with the same themes and ideas - the family plays simply move at a slightly quicker pace. By the time we reach works such as My Sister Sadie (2003) and Miss Yesterday (2004), Alan is writing morally complex plays which challenge the audience as much as his adult work. The family plays often complement his adult work too: Invisible Friends (Woman In Mind); Callisto 5 (Henceforward…); My Sister Sadie (Comic Potential); The Boy Who Fell Into A Book (Improbable Fiction – although this would be a case of the family play inspiring the 'adult' play). The family plays may not be as dark as the 'adult' ones - Alan is adamant they should never leave a young audience in a darker place - but they frequently add a new dimension to his exploration of previously established themes.
Mr A’s Amazing Maze Plays marks the beginning of a strand of Alan’s playwriting that cannot be ignored if we are to fully appreciate Alan’s career as a playwright and his intentions as a writer. To fully understand why and how Alan has developed as a playwright, the family plays need to be considered and valued - if only because the playwright himself says they are an important and prominent aspect of his writing.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.