Family Album: Interviews

This page contains an interview with Alan Ayckbourn about his play Family Album by the playwright's Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd.

Family Album: Simon Murgatroyd Interview with Alan Ayckbourn

Simon Murgatroyd: What is the inspiration behind your latest play, Family Album?
Alan Ayckbourn:
It was borne of an idea from watching a TV programme called A House Through Time and I thought this was rather interesting. Generations of people seen through the eyes of the house and the changing face of the house. It was a very interesting idea and not a million miles from something I’d written earlier - A Brief History of Women in 2017. I thought it is an idea I could revisit, but this time looking at the people - the family - more than the house.

In what way is the focus on the family?
It’s set in a house, built post-World War II to accommodate the new families emerging from war-torn England. I thought let’s visit one of those families, who have lived with the parents-in-law throughout the war with their young children. So we start in 1952 with the dad, John, finally leaving the Royal Air Force and the family moving into their first home along with their furniture, largely inherited from the parents of his wife, Peggy.

We start with an empty room as they and the furniture move in. We then follow that family through to the next generation too; the early ‘90s when John and Peggy’s youngest child, their daughter - Sandra - has grown up and had her own children. We contrast the lifestyles and, especially, the journey of women through that period. And then we come through to 2022 and the third generation - Sandra’s daughter, Alison - still in residence but about to move out of the house with her partner, Jess.

This sounds like it could be a straight narrative going from 1952 to 2022, but you’re never going to be that conventional!
It does sound like a conventional three act play - where you’d get act one in 1952; act 2 in 1992 and act 3 in 2022. But, I thought, what if the three time periods were allowed to run concurrently and thus we see them directly contrasting with each other? So we see the young grandparents planning for the future of the daughter, who is also frustratedly running a birthday party for her own daughter, simultaneously with her own daughter also planning to move out of the house with so many memories and unhappy vibes. We see the stark contrast between the lives and attitudes of the generations. It’s the first time I’ve run three timelines simultaneously in one of my plays

What’s interesting as you talk is it’s obviously a story about women, highlighted by the fact the company consists of five roles, four of which are female.
The story became - knowing me - quite a lot about the journey of women. I was particularly interested in the middle generation - Sandra in the play. We lost a whole generation of talented young women because nobody thought - in the aftermath of the war, to our disgrace - that women were worth educating. I think Family Album is a sort of social document really in that the grandmother - the young wife emerging from World War 2 - is not unaware that her own daughter requires and is worthy of a serious education, which the father is not prepared to pay for or to countenance affording. He prioritises the older sons over the daughter. We see the effect of that in 1992 with the second generation and a daughter unfulfilled with her own children, living in a broken marriage in a state of wasted life.

Which is not to say it’s a gloomy play?
It is an optimistic play in that things have got better. The ray of hope is for the future. The third generation are a same sex and mixed race couple. It’s also mixed social levels as the partner, Jess, comes from a northern working class background and for her, she is my token stranger. You always have to bring one character in for whom the entire place is a mystery and then have it explained to them slightly. What is this place? Why is it so quaint, so peculiar and why is all the furniture arranged this way?

Which becomes quite a significant part of the story itself with the furniture having its own story to tell.
The furniture is important - we see it arrive and also depart. The grandfather’s chair becomes quite significant as the granddaughters say, that’s the chair John sat in and generations of children wet themselves around it, waiting to be told off or punished! So by the present day, the room it’s been in for 70 years has a sort of ominous feeling growing from it as opposed to the optimism of the first generation moving in.

This is the third play in succession where you’ve returned to the time of your youth: the 1940s in The Girl Next Door and the 1950s in All Lies and Family Album, is there a reason for that?
At my age, you get torn between a feeling that you are no longer part of the modern world really - I’ve long ago retired, I’m no longer a part. I use the internet, so I’m part of the modern world in one sense although I’m not on social media directly. So I’m not of that generation but - on the other hand - I am of the past and I can chronicle that and indeed my play All Lies has a premise that could not occur in the 21st century. I do think although the recent past has not yet unlocked - it has a certain feeling of being past and it still has a lot to tell us about ourselves.

Finally, this is your second world premiere of the year and your 87th play. I’m interested in what you consider most vital element in keeping audiences interested?
Take the viewer by surprise. Good storytelling is surprising, it has to be. Once a sense of the predictable sets in, there’s a sort of feeling that you’re probably not doing a very good job. I hope Family Album will surprise audiences

Interview by Simon Murgatroyd and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Please do note reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.