Life Of Riley: Articles by Alan Ayckbourn
In Order Of Non-Appearance (Stephen Joseph Theatre 2010 production programme note)
John Godber tells the story of a woman who expressed disappointment when she saw a production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot saying she knew Godot would never arrive because his name didn’t appear in the programme. To avoid further disappointment I must own up that in Life of Riley, a prominent absentee from the published cast list is George Riley himself. The use of offstage characters is a common enough device in most plays, either these days for economic reasons, or artistically merely to simplify matters.
As a standard weapon in a playwright’s armoury, I have used this device on countless occasions, usually in smaller roles. This is probably the first time for me that one has featured as a - if not the - principle protagonist. Early on I learnt that for every character on stage one could also include one or even several that never appeared. And not merely to keep costs low which was and still is an important consideration.
But over and above mere cost, off-stage characters serve to extend the limited onstage world, lending the illusion of existence beyond the visible community populating the tiny stage area.
As characters, they can also by dint of their invisibility and sheer non presence take on roles which the principle onstage protagonists cannot. I discovered this early on in Absurd Person Singular (1972) which though on paper a six hander is essentially, through the inclusion of Dick and Lottie Potter, an eight hander. This pair of unseen ebullient teachers serve to create the nightmarish offstage Christmas parties to which, we, the audience from the safety of the kitchen, are grateful not to have been invited.
Indeed, so successful did Dick and Lottie become, they threatened in some productions to run away with the show. From hints and clues provided by the onstage characters, the audience delighted in filling in the gaps themselves, creating their own images of this hearty couple whose booming merriment can be heard every time the kitchen door is opened.
Later in The Norman Conquests (1973) the offstage unseen mother lies in her bed manipulating her luckless offspring. We count ourselves lucky she never makes it downstairs.
These offstage worlds can occasionally take on lives of their own. A few years later in Bedroom Farce (1975), the onstage newly weds Malcolm and Kate give a disastrous housewarming party which ends in pandemonium. It was only thirty years later when I was directing a revival of Relatively Speaking dating from 1965 that I discovered the young lovers Ginny and Greg in that play anachronistically recall first meeting at the same Malcolm and Kate’s party. Spooky!
In one instance, an offstage character so took my fancy that I gave him a major onstage appearance in a later play. Thus the unfortunate and awkward offstage Dr Bill Windsor from Intimate Exchanges (1982) was later to return in a major onstage role in Woman in Mind, awkward as ever and still unable to open his damaged doctor’s case three years later.
By my reckoning, I have at this point created over 400 onstage named characters and probably (though I haven’t even begun to count them) at least the same quantity of those other characters, referred to but never putting in an appearance. The unseen hoard.
Please welcome, then, the latest recruit to their number, George Riley. Since you will never to meet him in person, you are at liberty to make of him what you will. Just don’t believe everything people say of him, though.
Oh, I nearly forgot, keep a special ear open for talk of Basil and Dorothy Bender, who are almost certainly going to put in appearance in a future play. If they haven’t already done so…
Alan Ayckbourn's introduction to Alan Ayckbourn: Plays 5
From a play in which the central character, although onstage is seldom noticed by the other characters [My Wonderful Day], to a play where the central character never appears at all. In Life of Riley, written and first performed in 2010, we gradually learn everything about the terminally ill George Riley through his friends and loved ones. Naturally, each has a different take on a varied, sometimes very different George. For Katherine, he was her first love that she romantically remembers. Her view of him flatteringly misted by time. For Monica, his more recently estranged wife, who bore the day to day brunt of George’s volatile, eccentric behaviour until she could no longer bear it and for Tamsin, the neglected wife of George’s best friend Jack, the temptation of a retaliatory extra-marital fling.
From all this, we are left to draw our own picture of George, charismatic or just plain infuriating, romantic or impetuously childish, deeply loved or downright infuriating. There is little doubt that the departure of such a positive person will mean that the lives of those he leaves behind will never be quite the same again.
The group are linked by a common interest in amateur theatricals (not the first time I have strayed into this area) but the first time they have been rehearsing a play of my own, the 45 year old Relatively Speaking. Incestuous? Possibly. But then Life Of Riley was after all my 74th play, so I hope I can be forgiven.
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