One play, two stages, one cast... too much?

Alan Ayckbourn's interlocking plays 'House' and 'Garden' opened at the National last week. Stephen Fay sat in on a rehearsal
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The Independent Culture

A thin yellow line has been laid along the bleak corridors backstage at the National Theatre. Although the line links two rehearsal rooms, it is almost exactly the same length as the distance between the Olivier and the Lyttelton theatres where two plays by Alan Ayckbourn opened simultaneously last week. Not even Shakespeare managed that, never mind Tom Stoppard or Harold Pinter.

A thin yellow line has been laid along the bleak corridors backstage at the National Theatre. Although the line links two rehearsal rooms, it is almost exactly the same length as the distance between the Olivier and the Lyttelton theatres where two plays by Alan Ayckbourn opened simultaneously last week. Not even Shakespeare managed that, never mind Tom Stoppard or Harold Pinter.

One is called House, the second is called Garden, and what you see in one play is the off-stage action in the other. "It's a devil to explain to people, but it's one play which is simultaneously played in two theatres with the same cast," says Ayckbourn. When he met the cast, he told them that if anyone asked why he had done it, they should say he had done it for fun. It is an extraordinarily ingenious theatrical exercise, but the theatre is Ayckbourn's passion, his occupation, and his plaything.

" House and Garden could only have been written by a man with two theatres," he says. It is as well, then, that his own theatre, the Stephen Joseph in Scarborough, has two small auditoriums. He overcame some initial resistance from his own board, who feared that the project was too ambitious. It was a sell-out. The problem was to fit in extra performances of House in the smaller auditorium so that people who had seen Garden in the larger theatre could see both. Husbands and wives would see the two shows on the same night and compare notes.

Trevor Nunn, the director of the National Theatre, also has two theatres. When he was squeezed into the last performances in Scarborough last June, he liked what he saw. Having done some homework back in London, he decided that what had worked in Scarborough, where Ayckbourn had to sell 567 seats a night, could be transferred to London, even though he would have to fill 2,000 seats a night, and close his two main theatres to all other work for a month. Ayckbourn is as popular as any living playwright, but this is still a risky business.

Ayckbourn, wearing a white T-shirt, sits in the rehearsal room that duplicates the stage space of the Lyttelton. He is the director too, and he is working on House, while an assistant takes the rehearsal of Garden. Ayckbourn has directed all his plays since he shared the job with Peter Hall on his National Theatre debut, with Bedroom Farce in 1977. The stage manager, on an internal telephone line to the rehearsal room at the other end of the yellow line, counts ... one, two, three, go, and they're off simultaneously in both rooms.

Since the two performances must dovetail, prompts come very quickly, and Ayckbourn does not interrupt. Instead, he sits laughing at the dialogue, as though he was hearing it for the first time. As the director, he is remarkably detached about characters that he, the author, has created. "I suspect she came off a rebound," he says of a character named Joanna, without being conscious of the fact that, if he does not know, no one does.

The door of the rehearsal room opens intermittently to admit actors who have scampered across from Garden. Joanna and her husband Giles enter, looking out of sorts. Clearly something dreadful has happened to them in the Garden, but they are on their best behaviour in the House. At the end of the scene, timings are compared. The difference is 20 seconds. It had been two minutes in the morning run-through. "We're running the play every day and hoping the actors will settle into a rhythm. The rule is: don't panic early," says Ayckbourn. If the timings don't coincide, he writes a few more lines, or makes a cut. If that does not work on the night, set changes in one theatre will take slightly longer than usual, while the other performance catches up.

When he talks to the cast after the completion of the scene, Ayckbourn seems to be offering them no more than incidental afterthoughts: "Explore, I mean, the awkwardness of it," he says, rather awkwardly. Movements become more precise; jokes get polished. Jane Asher, who plays the wife of the House, says: "You go home and think 'Did he direct me today? It's all done so quietly'." He consciously leaves experienced actors Asher, David Haig and Michael Siberry alone. "I always keep as far away as I can." He casts about for a theory that fits his style of work, and finally comes up with an inelegant solution: "If you've got a dog, you don't bark yourself," he says.

He has flirted with some unusual theatrical forms in the past. The Norman Conquests took place in three different rooms on three successive nights. That was a hit, but when he produced a similar formula for The Revengers' Comedies in two nights, it flopped in the West End. "People didn't know whether they had to see them in a certain order," he recalls. " House and Garden might not work at the National Theatre, but they stand a better chance there than in the West End. There's more flexibility." ( House and Garden can be seen in either order.)

Ayckbourn writes faster than any living playwright, and 99.44 per cent of the dead ones too. He does spend months beforehand working out a plot in his head. But when he started to write this, he says, he had to go really fast at it. To find out where the characters were - the house or the garden - it was important to get the plot on paper. The writing took 10 days, and that was twice as long as usual.

The zeitgeist is late-Major. One clue is a reference to the Arts Minister as "some temporary, very, very minor post". The sexual frankness that devastated Major's administration is to be found in the plot too, though the lovemaking is, Ayckbourn-style, between two people who do not understand what they are saying to each other. "Once you could drive a whole play on sexual taboos. I've loosened out since. I hope sex doesn't swamp everything, but it does drive the characters in one way or another," he says.

The final problem of one play in two theatres with one cast is the curtain calls. Since they have to take their bow in both the Olivier and the Lyttelton, one group of actors is puffing along the yellow line while another group is receiving the applause. If the running group is late, there will be some operatic-length curtain calls. Allied to a collective shortage of puff.

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