Dreams From A Summer House : Background

In 1992, Alan Ayckbourn premiered Dreams From A Summer House at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough. It followed hot on the heels of what was widely perceived as one of his bleakest plays in years, Time Of My Life. Yet anyone expecting Alan to continue down that path was very much mistaken.

Instead, he teamed up with the theatre’s musical director, John Pattison, to write a fun, imaginative and exuberant play with music. A play that managed to both successfully tackle familiar Ayckbourn themes while avoiding the pitfalls musicals can present. It was a play with music that managed to both give a coherent reason why people should sing, whilst offering a gentle pastiche of operatic and musical conventions.

Alan is notorious for writing his plays in a concentrated effort, locked away in his house and unavailable. This time he flew out to Mallorca with John Pattison and spent two weeks in the sun collaborating on the book and music for
Dreams For A Summer House. It was obviously a successful way of working with Alan describing the experience as: "For two weeks we got up and had breakfast at 8.30am every morning and worked through until 6.30pm with just a half hour break for lunch.” He would even go on to claim he actually enjoyed this writing period!

Alan had had mixed fortunes with musicals in the past ranging from the disaster that was
Jeeves to the moderate success of Suburban Strains. He was still perplexed by the issue of people bursting into song for no apparent reason to frequently say nothing of real consequence. He wanted to create a play where there was a reason for characters to sing and that every song would progress the play as much as the equivalent amount of dialogue.

Alan had been enjoying a lot of success in the past five years with his children’s plays and this offered him the solution he needed and also offered the clearest link yet between his family and adult plays. Alan had become increasingly experimental and fantastical with the family plays and here he decided to introduce some of those elements to his adult plays by bringing the world of fairy-tale into a very recognisable Ayckbourn suburbia. The introduction of fantasy characters only able to communicate through song neatly resolved his major issue with musicals with this juxtaposition of worlds providing the motivation for the characters to sing and to further explore more traditional Ayckbourn ideas in a vibrant, new way.

Stylistically this was also an unusual play from Alan because he begins his play where many of his others finish. It begins with relationships in chaos and emotions stretched to breaking point. From here, the play reverses what we would expect of an Ayckbourn play until it culminates with what the critic Alfred Hickling called Alan’s “happiest ending ever.”

The play was a big success when it opened at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in August 1992 and received largely excellent reviews, leaving many critics surprised at this change of direction for Alan. It proved not just a technical challenge for the actors though, but also for stage management as the stage was covered in real turf; the reasoning was it was no more expensive to do this than to buy astro-turf and it obviously was far more realistic. The only problem was the grass had to be watered overnight!

The play had a strong cast and was notable for being the first of many collaborations between Alan and the actress Janie Dee. She has gone on to become an extremely acclaimed actress with many major awards to her name, yet she was not as familiar then and was widely acclaimed for her part as Amanda. Particularly when she revealed her true voice; suddenly the painful caterwauling of Amanda’s earlier songs were transformed into Janie’s powerful voice, surprising many of the audience and critics.

The major criticism of the play was the character of Robert, who gives one of the most misogynistic speeches to be found in an Ayckbourn play. He initially appears to despise Amanda’s sister Mel, but is won over in the end, not altogether convincingly. It is however, a fairy tale and as such a happy ending is required!

Plans were made for it to go into the West End, which all ultimately failed despite being pursued for several years. Correspondence from the period indicates it was originally hoped to open the play in London by Christmas 1993. The main problem was finding an actor to play Robert, who was both enough of a name, but could also act and sing to a high standard. Intriguingly the actor Anthony Head was considered, but did not feel he was right for the part; ironically several years later in 2001 he would appear in a multi-award winning musical episode of the television series
Buffy The Vampire Slayer, where ordinary people suddenly start singing their true emotions.

Dreams From A Summer House is arguably one of Alan’s more successful early attempts at a play with music and arguably the musical elements sit better than his previous plays with music, Suburban Strains and Making Tracks. It is also the more obvious template for future plays with music such as Whenever and Awaking Beauty. Dreams From A Summer House is not as well known as many of his other plays, but has been published and has proved popular over the years.

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.