Damsels In Distress: Articles

This section contains articles written by Alan Ayckbourn about the Damsels in Distress trilogy of plays. Click on a link in the right hand column to read the other articles in this section.

This article was written by Alan Ayckbourn for the programme for the world premiere of FlatSpin at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, during 2001.


Stephen Joseph's passion for encouraging writers from within the company is well documented. At one stage the two front runners for the Most Produced Playwright in a Season Award was shared between David Campton and myself. Sometimes our plays literally alternated in repertoire for months on end - his blend of light comedies and 'comedies of menace' with my own early frenetic farces.

Besides writing we also performed regularly in each other's plays. It soon became matter of honour to try and write each other the ultimately unplayable, unrewarding acting role - preferably as humiliating and physically uncomfortable as possible. We also became adroit at creating for each other unrecognisable or oft repeated cue lines combined with long tortuous speeches with impossible thought changes.

But I have to concede that David was clearly the winner in all this. My own lame attempts to cause him discomfort by having his character regularly struck with blunt instruments or drenched in water, flour, treacle, soot and other substances (all strictly to further the dramatic action, you understand) was as nothing compared to his own sadistic streak when it came to writing roles for me. Amongst these, a one-armed, one-legged, one-eyed barman who, quite apart from having to stand on one leg for 40 minutes, was also required to dispense rapid drinks one-handedly whilst engaging in quick-fire repartee with the customers (those of them I could actually make out with my restricted vision).

Another time I played an entire two hander with a paper bag on my head opposite an actress similarly attired. (A tip: try never to move your head. If you do, the paper tends to crackle and you can't even hear what you're saying, let alone your co-star). I can still taste soggy brown paper to this day (Thanks David). No wonder my acting career never took off.

Probably the best / worst role he ever wrote for me, though, was a homicidal, 108 year old female cook / nanny trapped in a nuclear bomb shelter with two young protégés (the cook had long ago served up their parents for dinner).

The character talked incessantly in a series of totally un-learnable non-sequiturs that made Beckett seem straightforward by comparison. I wore a ton of padding including foam rubber legs the size of tree trunks, an unyielding starched uniform, an off the peg grey wig and a false nose that regularly dropped off as the perspiration flowed down my mottled yellow make-up. Great role. Great prospects.

And people continue to ask me, do I still want to act?

Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.