Family Album: Articles

This section contains articles about Alan Ayckbourn's play Family Album. This article by his Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd, was published in the programme for the world premiere production of the play in 2022.


“I’m still looking to make sure I haven’t left any unexplored areas of ways to tell stories theatrically, which are still original without recourse to video or other media. I’m very anxious that I continue that for as long as possible.”
Alan Ayckbourn

Family Album is a play which explores the relationships, connections and contrasts between three generations of a single family. Each era reflecting upon the other eras and characters.

In a way, it’s similar to the relationship between Alan Ayckbourn’s own plays. As any Ayckbourn aficionado will appreciate, there are themes, structures and ideas which link and run through much of his work.

Each new Ayckbourn play emphasises how much the playwright enjoys exploring new ways to tell stories, often by returning to a previous idea but pushing it in an entirely new and unexpected direction.

The plays reflect upon each other as we appreciate how what may be, superficially, a similar idea can become something else entirely by continuing to explore its potential and expanding it in surprising ways.

A good example of this is his body-swapping plays: what began with two women swapping bodies in
Body Language (1990) exploring the perception of and attitudes to women’s bodies, led to a mother finding herself in a child’s body and her young son in an adult’s body in The Jollies (2002) before concluding with If I Were You (2006) in which a husband and wife swap bodies and are better able to appreciate their own relationships and challenges.

All derive from a similar premise, but all are very different in how they approach, explore and resolve the idea of finding yourself in an entirely unfamiliar body.

So with Family Album, the playwright has again looked back to earlier ideas and inspirations which he feels haven’t fully been explored nor resolved.

Structurally, the play harks back to one of his earliest successes,
How The Other Half Loves (1969). This was his first play to feature different locations occupying the same space with two couples in two flats, which are overlaid each other.

This builds to its most famous scene with a third couple participating in two dinner parties on different days in the different flats, both portrayed simultaneously in the same space with the couple - William and Mary - switching seamlessly between each.

It’s a technical masterclass as William and Mary flip from one party and conversation to the next and back again, culminating in a tureen of soup hitting William - how then to explain his soaked state when he turns back to the other party? Only that he has been sitting unaware beneath a leaking toilet!

Alan would further develop this idea of simultaneous action in shared spaces for his farce
Taking Steps (1979) in which three floors of a single house are overlaid on top of each other - it only makes sense when performed in-the-round with the entire audience able to see the stage-floor. Characters on different levels share the same space creating a myriad of juxtapositions and sight gags including fourth wall (or perhaps third floor) breaking moments.

Which leads us to
Family Album.

“There are times when I think I’ve probably pushed as far as I can in one direction but then found there’s another direction.
Family Album is pushing in directions I’ve previously pushed in, but some of them I haven’t quite pushed as far as I have in this one. It’s the first time I’ve run time three timelines simultaneously throughout an entire play. The exploration of space and time is always worth a revisit as it’s so interesting.”

So in
Family Album, we have three generations of a single family in 1952, 1992 and 2022, all sharing the same physical space of the family house with action from the different periods moving seamlessly in and out of each other or taking place simultaneously, enabling the play - as the writer puts it - “to pingpong between all three points of history.” This structure allows the playwright to contrast the different attitudes of each era as well as instantly showing us the ramifications of earlier decisions or to hark back to how an event in the present is shaped by the past.

To successfully achieve this effect theatrically, Alan references another play,
A Small Family Business (1987). Whereas the problem in Family Album is differentiating which time period we are watching, A Small Family Business - set across several homes portrayed by a single house - needs to emphasise where each character is, solving the problem by altering the lighting state for each ‘home’. Family Album borrows the same technique but uses light to indicate time rather than place.

Family Album also makes a deliberate callback to another more recent play, A Brief History of Women (2017). This takes place in the same house over sixty years charting how the building has altered as viewed through the eyes of a man continually drawn back to it.

Again, superficially, we have a similar premise between the two plays. A house and its inhabitants portrayed over numerous decades. There are two key differences though, which make the plays entirely different. The first being
A Brief History of Women’s action is sequential with each scene moving forward a number of years, whereas in Family Album the different eras weave in and out of each other.

Secondly, the house itself is a major focus of A Brief History of Women and is practically another character; the play indicates this in its touching climax when a character notes: “Houses. They never forget you. They always remember you.” We watch with interest as the house continually changes and develops, alongside its perpetual companion, Spates. In
Family Album, the emphasis is not on the house, but squarely on its inhabitants and how each generation affects the next, drawing comparisons between the optimism of the post-war generation to a lost generation of women back to a more optimistic present moving away from the ties of the past.

The house is far less of a character, but rather a fascinating backdrop as we see it through the characters’ eyes and how radically the perception of it and what it represents alters through the decades.

It’s also interesting this is the third play in a row in which Alan has looked back to the era of his own youth with
The Girl Next Door (2021) half set in 1942, All Lies (2022) set between 1957 and 1958 and Family Album partly set in 1952.

Here the playwright is exploring his own history to mine for dramatic potential and alternative ways of telling stories:
All Lies, for example, is a play entirely predicated in being set in a pre-digital world where communication was still largely achieved through letter-writing. A totally different world to the ubiquitous forms of digital communication today.

Each of the three plays also calls back to the others in subtle ways, be it the treatment of daughters following the war or different experiences of wartime trauma.

However, the most significant callback of
Family Album is a theme which will be familiar to anyone who has followed the playwright’s career. For Family Album is a play primarily about the journey of women over the past six decades.

And hasn’t that been the unifying element throughout Alan Ayckbourn’s entire playwriting career?

For more than six decades he has been praised for his portrayal of female characters in the British suburban home and his play canon is a document of how women’s lives and situations have changed, progressed and - occasionally - faltered during that time. It’s a theme which permeates his entire body of work.

Just as it permeates
Family Album and its snapshot of three generations of women and their own journeys through life.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.