Hero's Welcome: Interview with Alan Ayckbourn

This page contains an interview with Alan Ayckbourn by his archivist Simon Murgatroyd from 2015.

Simon Murgatroyd:
Hero’s Welcome is your latest play, what can you tell us about it?
Alan Ayckbourn:
Hero’s Welcome is about the prodigal son, Murray, coming back to his home town. He’s one of my anti-heroes really, a squaddie who has got all the good qualities that I like; he trusts people and he’s honest with people - although he got trapped in his early days by the machinations of sexual politics and ran away at the altar, not the best time to run away from a woman. If you’re going to run away, run away before! He’s returning to the ‘scene of the crime’ for the first time since he left.

Presumably the scorned woman is waiting in the wings?
Indeed. I’m always fascinated by what time does to people. Murray left his fiancée Alice at the altar, when she was glamorous, desirable and used to put her finger up to society. Twenty years later, she’s the mayor and married to the safest sort of man - a loving, doting type who’s completely obsessed with model railways.

And just to keep things interesting, Murray doesn’t return alone.
Murray returns with his new bride, Baba. She is another interesting character. She is the moral compass of the play who starts as a tiny element and then grows. She has a huge effect on the slightly listless inhabitants of the town. She has a brain to run rings around Murray, in the nicest possible way. During the course of the play it’s fun to see how she grows.
Baba is actually not a million miles away from my own Brazilian daughter-in-law. I remember meeting her for the first time when she hardly spoke any English and hardly said anything. It was in Bath and she came to tea with me and my partner. Heather said, ‘Oh, you look terrific’ and her face just dropped. She thought Heather had said ‘Terrivel' - Portuguese for terrible! She went away and cried for a bit as she didn’t understand.

You frequently revisit and delve deeper into themes from other plays, are there any recurring motifs in Hero’s Welcome?
I’ve revisited one of my fascinations, male rivalry. That was there originally in Time And Time Again, at the end of which the two guys completely forgot what they were competing for - which was the girl! Undeterred, they just carried on competing while she just said, ’Oh, to hell with this!’ I just find that streak in men fascinating - I think it probably does exist in women but it’s not the same and they go about it in different ways. Blokes will just bet each other for no real reason: ‘I bet you can’t get over that fence!’ I knew someone who would look around a room and then say, ‘I bet you can’t flick that beer mat into the waste paper basket’. Before we knew it, we’d started this incredible game, flipping mats, and if they landed on the table it was -3 points, if it landed in the basket it was +15 points. There was this incredible points system within minutes and we would play it for hours! Hero’s Welcome explores the male rivalry between Murray and an old friend, Brad, who is hugely competitive. Murray is a non-competitor really and always hates it if he wins. But he’s also been in the army, so you just don’t challenge him to a physical fitness match, because the guy’s absolutely fine-tuned! But Brad will go to any lengths to win whilst Murray doesn’t intend to win.

You’ve written several soldiers into recent plays such as Private Fears In Public Places and Arrivals & Departures, yet it’s a relatively new trend for you. Is there any reason for this?
I’ve known people who have joined up at an incredibly young age at 17 or 18. They went straight into the services and they're looked after in an incredible way and scheduled to within an inch of their lives. Suddenly they come out and they've absolutely no compass and don’t really know what they're doing. They're waiting for someone to say ‘fall in, follow me.’ Murray’s a little bit like that, although he’s still got a little bit of momentum. I’m just enlarging my canvas and bringing in a few more people.
I knew a girl who married a guy in the army and once he left, he was just hopeless. She married this well together guy who was an officer and knew what he was doing. Suddenly he didn't have any men to command and she said, ‘Where has the leadership gone? I know I signed up to be an army wife, but when you take the army away, what is he doing now?’ Sometimes these people don’t have the same drive outside of the army. In that situation, I’m interested in what happens to the people around them.

Your last play, Roundelay, was one of your more experimental plays in which the structure changed every night. Should we expect the same of Hero’s Welcome or is it a more traditional narrative?
It’s a good old straight four-scene play with a beginning, middle and an end. It does have - like Life Of Riley - a fixed multiple locations set, which is something I like when I have a complex narrative that needs telling quite easily. You've got one room for each location, so hopefully we can keep the story rolling hopefully.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.