'The audience booed, the cast fled' – playwrights relive their worst flops | Stage

‘It was doomed from the start’ Alan Ayckbourn on Jeeves (1975) The biggest failure I ever had was my first attempt at a musical. Andrew...

‘It was doomed from the start’

Alan Ayckbourn on Jeeves (1975)

The biggest failure I ever had was my first attempt at a musical. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice had just had two big successes with Joseph and Jesus Christ Superstar, and I was the golden boy of the West End at that point. So somebody had the bright idea of bringing the three of us together to adapt the stories of PG Wodehouse.

It was doomed from the start. People were jumping on board with no previous experience. It was a case of the blind leading the blind. Tim had cold feet and Andrew said I could be the lyricist – “piece of cake”. I remember thinking Hammerstein and Gershwin would be turning in their graves.

We had this idea that David Wood (playing Bingo Little) would be on a chandelier swinging around, but found out he gets the most appalling vertigo. He got up on his toes and he started screaming, so we had to abandon it.

I wrote something that was enormously long and we never actually did a run-through. The first performance went on and on and on. The musicians had a four-hour call, so once we got to the four-hour mark, they all trailed out and went to the pub. The poor conductor very gallantly ran for the piano and played the last number, but with the cast not being operatically trained, they were completely thrown once they’d lost their harmonies. There was a lot of slamming of seats.

We made ruthless cuts and staggered on. It never got any better. I cut some ballet sequences and the choreographer walked out. Come first night, Andrew said: “Are you going to sit in?” I said: “No, I don’t think so.” We went to a club round the corner and came back at the end. Apparently the audience had been booing. The rest of the cast had fled.

We went to see David Hemmings, who was playing Bertie Wooster, who we heard was still in his dressing room. He was crying and sitting in the shower so I stepped in to get to him and told him it was all our fault. I was soaking wet, it was like a farce. It ran for another three sad weeks and got universally awful reviews. I said that was my lot as far as musicals are concerned. The next thing I did was Bedroom Farce, no songs at all.

‘Suddenly it was scary’ … Lynn Nottage.

‘Suddenly it was scary’ … Lynn Nottage. Photograph: Michael Zorn/Invision/AP

‘Ever been spanked on the derrière?’

Lynn Nottage on Por’Knockers (1995)

I still remember an audience member ripping up their programme into tiny shreds and throwing it like confetti, saying: “I am cancelling my subscription to the theatre!”

Por’Knockers is a social satire about a group of radical idealists who blow up a building and inadvertently kill some children who are playing inside. I wrote it after working for Amnesty International for a number of years, when the world felt topsy-turvy. It was originally staged at Dance Theatre Workshop in London, and was immensely successful. As a result, a production was planned at the Vineyard theatre in 1995.

Then the world changed. Timothy McVeigh blew up an FBI building in Oklahoma, killing hundreds of people, including children. Prior to this, it was seen as what it was – a satire – and people were able to laugh. Back then, at least in the US, terrorism wasn’t something that really touched us on a regular basis. Once we were faced with the reality, the play could not be received in the same way. Suddenly this social satire became really scary. There would have been more backlash if more people saw it, but few came because it was so badly reviewed. It’s never been redone.

I was sued by someone who claimed I had stolen his idea at a reading, but he didn’t realise my show had been staged a whole year before his reading. And why would I steal an idea that’s gone so badly?

But the strangest thing was I started getting prank phonecalls from this German man who said he had seen the play, loved it, and was writing a PhD on theatre of cruelty. We began discussing it and then in a whisper he said: “Have you ever been spanked on the derrière with a ping-pong paddle?” And I was like: “Excuse me?” I hung up but he kept calling me for six months.

April de Angelis in 1999.

April de Angelis in 1999. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

‘It was supposed to be comic!’

April De Angelis on A Laughing Matter (2002)

There aren’t many jobs where you can have 10 or so people publicly saying things about something you hold dear, something you have spent your whole life doing. But the only way a playwright ever learns is to write a play and put it on.

I wrote A Laughing Matter in 2002. It was a play about David Garrick, the 18th-century theatrical all-rounder, putting on Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer. The idea was that Out of Joint would tour Goldsmith’s play and have a new play written to accompany it. I decided to write a story of how She Stoops to Conquer came to be. It was originally refused by Garrick because he felt it was too crude.

It had good audiences, but it just didn’t get well reviewed. One critic – actually it was the Guardian’s Michael Billington – said it was an inaccurate rendering of Garrick’s life, even though it was never meant to be accurate. It was supposed to be comic! We don’t know the facts, he never wrote his life down. And why can’t you write a slightly imagined history?

I think I’ve written good plays and bad plays. The good tend to survive, the bad don’t. This was the only play where I’d put my hand on my heart and say: “That’s a good play, that should survive.” And it hasn’t.

Any writer can tell you every bad thing that’s been written about them. I went through a phase of going: “I’m not reading the reviews.” But then I’d just grab my phone and ask: “What are they saying?” We need critics and sometimes bad comments are justified, but that one I just couldn’t. I’m still cross.

‘Web critics got it. Broadsheet ones didn’t’

Anthony Neilson on Narrative (2013)

Our idea of stories is evolving in the digital age. I have increasingly started to feel like the 90-minute, hermetically sealed classical structure of a play now feels quite odd. It doesn’t have the same kind of pulse as life.

Zawe Ashton, Imogen Doel, Brian Doherty, Christine Entwisle, Barnaby Power, Oliver Rix and Sophie Ross in Narrative at the Royal Court, written and directed by Anthony Neilson.

Zawe Ashton, Imogen Doel, Brian Doherty, Christine Entwisle, Barnaby Power, Oliver Rix and Sophie Ross in Narrative at the Royal Court, written and directed by Anthony Neilson. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

I think my show Narrative was a reasonably successful attempt at changing the mainstream. It was performed upstairs at the Royal Court in London, and a lot of the younger web critics really got it but the old-school broadsheet ones didn’t. I don’t think it was some genius, amazing work, but it opened a dialogue that was worth having. And that’s all I want to do: think about what a mainstream new form of narrative might be in theatre. Something that moves in a different way and will make sense to people 20 or 50 years from now.

If you look at the history of film, it changes somewhat in terms of people’s cognition. It has some feeling of response. I don’t see the same things happening in theatre, which means that 20 or 30 years down the line when this demographic – who the industry is so eager to cater for and who can afford to pay £100 for a ticket – is gone, I’m not sure where they’re going to get their audiences from.

I’m finding myself pretty disillusioned by theatre. You can only make lots of money if you’re prepared to write adaptations of films. Risk is not rewarded and that’s going to lead to a point where we’re not really looking for different ways to tell those stories on stage. The artform is going to atrophy.

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Newsrust: 'The audience booed, the cast fled' – playwrights relive their worst flops | Stage
'The audience booed, the cast fled' – playwrights relive their worst flops | Stage
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