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.

Private Fears In Public Places is Alan Ayckbourn's 67th play and was premiered in 2004, yet its roots go back to the 1990s when an unwritten play called Private Fears In Public Places was advertised as the new Ayckbourn play by the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, only to never appear and be replaced by Communicating Doors (see Alternative Fears for further information). The title Private Fears In Public Places, if not the intended play, was filed away for use for another day and another play.

That day came in 2004, when Alan was rehearsing his 66th play
Drowning On Dry Land. Apparently Alan was 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 also 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.

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. This was interesting as Alan had imposed a moratorium on London productions of his new plays in 2003. By taking his own company to a preferred fringe venue of his choice, Alan was demonstrating he would now only visit London on his own terms. 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.

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 including the director’s wife, Sabine Azéma.

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 difference between the play and the film is the switch of location from London to a snow-bound Paris with images of snow linking the scenes.

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.

In 2015, a unique production of the play marked a first for Alan Ayckbourn when Dick & Lottie company - the UK's only amateur drama company dedicated to the works of Alan Ayckbourn - came to Scarborough to perform their production for the playwright in his rehearsal rooms. The quality of the production led to Alan Ayckbourn's decision to allow this website and his Archivist to become the patron of Dick & Lottie and to forge close links with the company.

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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