Invisible Friends: Background

In 1988, Alan Ayckbourn took his first serious step into a new area of playwriting when he wrote Mr A’s Amazing Maze Plays. This was the first of his family plays and demonstrated a new-found passion and commitment to writing plays for young people.

He quickly followed this up in the summer of 1989 with
The Inside Outside Slide Show, before presenting Invisible Friends during the Christmas of 1989 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough. With three plays in 12 months, here was ample evidence Alan was committed to theatre for young people.

Mr A’s Amazing Maze Plays, Alan had realised children were an attentive theatre audience that did not need to be patronised. They were quite capable of handling a wide spread of emotions and issues, it just needed to be presented in a way which captured and held their interest. Invisible Friends continued down this path, but arguably began to introduce more recognisable Ayckbourn themes into the mix. The way the plays present the issues may be different, but the plays for young people should not be ignored as they illustrate the themes and issues present throughout his writing as clearly as his adult plays.

Invisible Friends is often labelled as a companion piece to Alan’s adult play Woman In Mind, where the protagonist Susan invents her own imaginary family, but consequently is driven to breakdown as she loses her grasp on reality. Susan is quite clearly a precursor to Lucy, the heroine of Invisible Friends, only Lucy’s ending is a - relatively - happy one; which Alan feels is important in children’s theatre. While these two plays have an obvious connection, it is also worth noting that two years after writing Invisible Friends, Alan would write the disturbing drama Wildest Dreams which also explores a major theme of Invisible Friends of being careful what you wish for with consequences even darker than those of Woman In Mind.

Alan also admits in writing
Invisible Friends he was driven by the need to encourage the next generation to visit the theatre and to experience the magic of live performance. In contemporary interviews he talks of his fear that theatres will be empty in the future if children are not encouraged to leave their computers, mobile technology and televisions to experience theatre. Invisible Friends, with its stage-tricks and visual techniques, quite clearly sets out to demonstrate something children could not find at home.

The challenge of staging the play led to the unusual decision by Alan to build the set up into one of the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round's seating blocks to incorporate the second floor of Lucy's home. This had the effect of reducing audience capacity as a number of seats had to be removed.

The play opened in December 1989 and was a success for the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, gaining excellent reviews and cementing Alan’s reputation for writing for young people. The transfer to London - the first of his family plays to make the transfer - took place within two years.

Invisible Friends opened in the Cottlesloe at the National Theatre in 1991. The National’s director Richard Eyre was committed to theatre for young people and Alan gained much media attention with this production, offering a platform to argue for the need to take theatre for young people seriously. Reviews were predominantly excellent, although the few dissenters largely found fault with the climax of the play in which it was argued Lucy is faced with the Hobson’s choice of a fantasy life turned bad or the depressing reality of her real life. The central tenet of the play, that Lucy has the ability to make changes to her own life by believing in herself and the dangers of living in fantasy, seem largely to have been lost or ignored by these writers. Intriguingly and depressingly, a number of publications also criticised the National Theatre’s scheduling of Invisible Friends for the month of March, implying children’s theatre should be restricted to Christmas. Perhaps most interestingly - and most positive - was many publications sent their first-string reviewers to see a family play and gave these writers the space to deal with the play’s issues seriously.

The timing of the play is also interesting, although there is nothing to indicate this influenced Alan’s decision to begin writing in earnest for a younger audience. In 1989, the British Government made a sweeping change to the education system with the Education Reform Act. One of the effects of this act was schools were no longer necessarily given the funding for school trips and were obliged to ask for parental contributions to facilitate school trips. This obviously had a profound effect on schools visiting theatres and the opportunities for children to experience theatre. The school’s dilemma, which would only increase as the years went by, was that while parents were asked to contribute, a school could not refuse to take a child if the parent refused to contribute. As a result, if there were not enough parental contributions, schools would face the choice of having to subsidise the trip themselves - without necessarily having the means to do so - or to cancel the trip because of the financial implications to the school. This had a long-term and profoundly detrimental effect on school-visits to British theatres.

In this context, to have such a prominent theatrical figure as Alan throwing his weight behind theatre for young people and stressing its importance has subsequently helped highlight the importance of this type of theatre and the need for children to be encouraged to visit the theatre.

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