Private Fears In Public Places: History

Private Fears In Public Places is a unique play in the Ayckbourn canon. It is structurally unlike anything he has written before or since and the playwright describes it as a movie set on stage. It explores themes of alienation and loneliness in the 21st century and the critic Alfred Hickling described it as being “as enigmatic and ambiguous as anything Ayckbourn has written”. Yet despite this, it is identifiably an Ayckbourn play which mixes light and dark as it explores relationships in contemporary society. In its bleak and powerful dissection of the lives of thirty-somethings in London, it could well be argued this is the Ayckbourn play that best represents the first decade of the new century as much as A Small Family Business is regarded as his definitive ‘80s play about the state of the nation.
Behind The Scenes: Sounds Familiar
Private Fears in Public Places is an example of Alan recycling a play-title. During 1994, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round advertised Alan Ayckbourn's new play as Private Fears in Public Places. However, Alan hit a block when he came to writing the play and - despite tickets having already gone on sale - wrote an entirely different play instead, Communicating Doors. He kept the unused title and a decade later recycled Private Fears In Public Places for an entirely different play. You can find out more about this alternative version on the Alternative Fears page.
Private Fears In Public Places is Alan Ayckbourn's 67th play and was an unscheduled and unexpected world premiere in 2004. That year Alan was rehearsing his 66th play Drowning On Dry Land and was apparently so inspired by the acting company that, as had happened four years earlier with the Damsels In Distress company, he wrote another play for the company which was hastily inserted into the theatre’s summer schedule.

The play marked a dramatic departure for the playwright and perhaps this can be attributed to how comfortable he felt with the acting company. The obvious departure is the play’s structure: 54 scenes played over one hour and forty-five minutes without an interval. The scenes cross-cut and fade in and out of each other quickly and almost cinematically. As Alan has repeatedly stated,
Private Fears In Public Places is inspired by his love of film and is intended as a film for stage.

It could be argued that in the plays preceding
Private Fears In Public Places, there was a new found optimism in his writing which frequently tempered the darker elements; there was no such consolation in Private Fears In Public Places. It is a play which does not shy away from its essential theme of loneliness and alienation; at the climax, there appears to be little light ahead for any of the characters - there is no great revelation or change in their lives and they will all continue much as they did before in their lost and disappointed lives.

It is also arguably a play centred around 30-somethings (with the exception of Ambrose) - if we go by Alan's original casting as none of the characters' ages are given in the play script - and like some of Ayckbourn’s plays from the 1980s, it feels as though it is his perception of contemporary lives. It is almost a state of the generation play and it will be interesting to note how it is regarded in years to come (many of Alan’s plays have been re-evaluated over time and are now regarded as incisive commentaries on life in the UK at that time).

If the play has similarities to any other Ayckbourn plays of this period, it is probably
House & Garden. Although very different from each other in tone, one of the significant themes of House & Garden is how we are all walk-on parts in other people’s lives. In Private Fears In Public Places, the disparate lives of the characters cross and collide from their own narratives into the others’ narratives.

The play opened at the
Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in August 2004. The reviews - with the notable exception of The Times - were positive but not overwhelming. The critics did not seem to know what to make of a play which broke the Ayckbourn mould so completely and was undoubtedly his darkest play for a number of years, only all agreeing that the cast was uniformly excellent.
Behind The Scenes: Public Fears
The decision to tour Private Fears In Public Places to the Orange Tree is an interesting one in the context of the time. Just two years earlier, Alan Ayckbourn had issued a moratorium against his new work being performed in London and the West End; this was as a result of the debacle surrounding the West End production of the Damsels in Distress trilogy. Private Fears In Public Places marks one of the few times Alan has allowed one of his new works to be produced in London - in this case, he was taking his own company to a preferred fringe venue of his choice. It is a clear indication that Alan would now only visit London or allow his plays to be produced in London on his own terms.
In 2005, Alan revived the play with a slightly altered company for an ambitious tour. The play - which had not been altered - ran for a short period at the Stephen Joseph Theatre (having only had a relatively brief run at the venue in 2004) before transferring to the Orange Tree in Richmond for a month. The reviews offered a slight improvement on the Scarborough ones with a particularly perceptive critique by The Guardian’s Michael Billington.

The surprise aspect of the tour came next with the company transferring to New York for a month long residency at 59E59 Theaters as part of its
Brits Off Broadway Festival. This was a huge risk for the Scarborough company as the Stephen Joseph Theatre would make a loss on the tour if audience figures did not reach 58%. If ever there was a case of leaping into the lion’s den, this was it as Alan had had only sporadic success in New York previously (predominantly in the 1970s with Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests); his most recent self-directed production in New York had been the short-lived Broadway production of By Jeeves in 2001. As such, nobody expected or was prepared for the reaction that was to come.

Although bookings were initially solid, they were not spectacular and a lot hinged on the press night. The following day, the theatre management was tipped off they might want to prepare themselves and the box office. It is hard to over-emphasise the influence The New York Times has with regard to their reviews as the paper is notorious for being able to make or break a show and its critics have tremendous influence. The respected critic Charles Isherwood reviewed
Private Fears In Public Places and it was an exceptional review, mirrored by many other critics who declared the production as one of the best plays running in New York at the time. The response to this was predictable and very welcome; the play became the hottest ticket in town and had a sell-out run, unable to meet the demand for seats. It soared above the 58% capacity it needed for success and would go on to be featured in a number of critic’s top ten lists of the year. The American critics’ perception was also radically different from most British critics. Not only did they praise the writing and the cast, but also the play itself showing a degree of insight and perception that demonstrated the case for this being one of the most significant of the playwright’s plays in recent years.

The success of Private Fears In Public Places at the 59E59 Theaters led to many rumours it would return to Broadway but with an American cast directed by Alan Ayckbourn. The proposed production was actually cast but fell apart when it became obvious the production was heading down a similar path to the one which led to Alan’s disillusion with London’s West End. Initially it was agreed with the producers that Private Fears In Public Places would open in an intimate off-Broadway venue, which Alan felt was - like the 59E59 Theaters - ideal for the play. However, the producers changed their minds and wanted to move it to a larger Broadway venue, predominantly for financial reasons. Alan refused to accept this and felt the change of venue would do the play no favours and, in all likelihood, tarnish the achievements of a play and company which had generated one of the most enthusiastic set of reviews of his career from one of the most difficult and demanding selection of critics in the world. As a result, Alan walked away and the proposed production was cancelled with the play never transferring to Broadway.

Samuel French published the play text in 2019 following a previous inclusion in Faber's collection
Alan Ayckbourn: Plays 3. The Samuel French edition corrected an unfortunate mistake in the Faber edition where a single grammatical error in the text had enormous implications for one of the characters [see Other Perspectives & Publication Corrections].

The next step in the play’s remarkable journey was a request by the acclaimed French film director Alain Resnais to adapt it into a film. Alan has always been wary of filmed adaptations of his work, but held Resnais in high regard (who had been visiting Scarborough to see Alan’s work since the late 1980s). Resnais had previously adapted Alan’s epic play
Intimate Exchanges into the films Smoking / No Smoking. Although idiosyncratic, they were at the time perhaps the finest and most faithful of all filmed adaptations of Alan’s play, capturing the heart and spirit of the play. Alan agreed to let Resnais adapt the film and, like Smoking / No Smoking before it, he had no further input into the film-making process.
Behind The Scenes: A Mis-Translation
The only significant issue with the movie of Private Fears In Public Places is a mistake due entirely to a mis-print in the published version of the play. Within the play, the character of Ambrose is gay. However, when the play was originally published by Faber, a single line was incorrectly amended by the publisher changing a single word 'they' to 'she'. As a result, the only verbal confirmation about Ambrose's sexuality - which he is concealing - was lost. The French translation of the play was taken from the Faber edition without the translator being aware of the mistake, as a result the incorrect line was carried into the movie resulting in, at best, an implication of Ambrose's actual sexuality. This is discussed further in the Other Perspectives page of the website,.
Resnais brought on board the award-winning writer Jean-Michel Ribes to adapt the play, producing a screenplay that was extremely faithful to the original. The structure of 54 scenes was kept and any alterations to the dialogue were sympathetic. As is the norm for Resnais’s films, it was made entirely within the studio and featured a number of acclaimed French actors who had frequently worked with Resnais including the director’s wife, Sabine Azéma. If anything it is a more sombre version of the play with a melancholic feel to it - which the film's producer was apparently not expecting, feeling the more comedic aspects would rise and which apparently caused friction between him and Resnais.

The finished film, titled
Coeurs (literally translated as Hearts) was premiered at the 63rd Venice Film Festival, where it won the Silver Lion Award for Best Director. Reverting to its original title of Private Fears In Public Places, the film was released internationally during 2006 and 2007. It is arguably the most faithful of all the filmed adaptations of Alan Ayckbourn’s work and certainly one of the most technically accomplished. It stays true to the structure and spirit of the play, but does not feel like a stage-bound play adaptation. The major differences between the play and the film are the switch of location from London to a snow-bound Paris with images of snow linking the scenes and the obvious ageing up of the majority of the characters; this is largely due to Resnais's desire to essentially work with a repertory company of actors he is familiar with; this does lead to the slightly confusing situation where brother and sister Thierry and Gaelle have an obvious age difference of more than 30 years.

Back on stage, the first professional revival of the
Private In Public Fears on the UK stage took place at Manchester’s Library Theatre in 2006. The reviews which greeted it were very different from those which greeted the original Scarborough production, which had gone on to such success in New York, and reflected the response the play had received from American critics. The value of the play in Ayckbourn’s canon was apparently already being re-evaluated just two years after its world premiere.

In 2009,
Private Fears In Public Places was chosen as one of the plays to be produced at the Royal & Derngate, Northampton, as part of the Ayckbourn At 70 celebration. It was directed by Laurie Sansom, who had previously worked with Alan as an Associate Director at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, and demonstrated the strength and potential of the piece. This remarkable and adventurous production brought the audience onto the stage into the various locales of the play and featured an extremely strong ensemble company. The production received strong reviews.

Private Fears In Public Places cannot be considered anything less than a ground-breaking play for Alan Ayckbourn. As new productions are mounted and past productions re-considered, it continues to undergo a remarkable re-evaluation as one of the most significant and challenging Ayckbourn plays of the 21st century.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.
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The Private Fears In Public Places section of the website is dedicated to Dick & Lottie theatre company for its commitment to Alan Ayckbourn and his plays.