Alan Ayckbourn: Grinning at the Edge by Paul Allen

John Sears

The reader is left with a strong sense of the often violent pressures that build up in situations demanding extreme commitment for little financial reward, and how these pressures can affect individuals as well as teams of people.

Alan Ayckbourn

Publisher: Continuum Books
Subtitle: Grinning At the Edge
Author: Paul Allen
Price: $35
Length: 337
Formats: Hardback
US publication date: 2002-05
"The structure of a play is always the story of how the birds came home to roost."
— Arthur Miller

The author of plays like The Norman Conquests, Absurd Person Singular, and Woman in Mind, Alan Ayckbourn is a major figure in the remarkable post-war renaissance of English drama, having produced 57 plays, won countless awards including a knighthood in 1997, and had his work translated into over 30 languages. Yet Ayckbourn is intensely private, shunning the media in favour of his adopted home of Scarborough, Yorkshire, where he runs a successful repertory theatre. This biography attempts to reveal some of the personal histories behind the man and the plays, while at the same time situating Ayckbourn in some of the contexts of modern drama.

Paul Allen writes as something of an insider, being himself playwright as well as a long-term BBC Radio 4 Arts presenter. Allen's familiarity with the mechanisms of theatrical production, and in particular with the financial and political dimensions of running a modern theatre, provides an informative framework through which the narrative of Ayckbourn's life and development is allowed to display itself. Allen writes just about as clearly as possible, given the complexities of some of the intrigues and controversies he addresses, and the vast range of characters who feature prominently in Ayckbourn's life.

One consequence of Allen's familiarity is that this biography has a very 'insider' feel. While ostensibly oscillating between the intensely detailed and the more generalising, Allen tends to opt for the former. He offers in effect a series of close-up snapshots of Ayckbourn's career that is liberally sprinkled with theatrical anecdotes and reminiscences but can also be rather chaotic for the reader unattuned to the delicate social and political balances that need to be sustained in theatrical company. At one point in this book, we encounter, in rapid sequence, Bob Peck, Robert Morley, Tom Courtenay, Richard Briers, Penelope Keith, John Alderton, Pauline Collins, Colin Blakely, Michael Gambon, Rosemary Leach and Constance Chapman, as well as the more ubiquitous figures of Stephen Joseph, Robin Herford and Heather Stoney (Ayckbourn's partner).

Such a list surely cements Ayckbourn's place in the centre of '70s and '80s dramatic production in England (nearly all these names are well-known for their television careers as well), but Ayckbourn himself remains, by the end of the book, a rather elusive figure amid this illustrious company. We learn something of his childhood and upbringing -- middle-class unconventional, boarding school, Haileybury public school, where boys were trained "to be governors of what remained of the British Empire" -- and then into the dramatic profession, interrupted only by the briefest of stints doing National Service.

Allen touches on some of the cultural influences on Ayckbourn's development -- in particular The Goon Show, and, slightly bizarrely, Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death. Ayckbourn's comedy, which always treads that thin line separating it from the most vicious tragedy, derives in part from that weird post-war cultural mix of radio, cinema and a particularly English form of Surreal humour made up of equal parts of Donald McGill, early Carry On films, Round the Horne and the need for good humour in the face of perpetual rationing and declining national significance. And, of course, there's the dramatic tradition: Sartre's Huis Clos, Priestley's An Inspector Calls, Ibsen, Chekhov, Anouilh, and the emergence in 1955 of Samuel Beckett -- all have a significant role to play in helping to establish Ayckbourn's own brand of English comedy.

Allen doesn't quite do as much with these contexts as he could. The key year in post-war English culture, 1956, saw the first production of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger as well as the Suez crisis and the Hungarian uprising, and in that year Ayckbourn left school at 17 to begin his theatrical career. Allen makes the connection but doesn't extend its possibilities. Ayckbourn's drama is rarely directly political (except in its attacks on political correctness and, in particular, feminism, which Allen chooses to interpret as "satirical") but instead is adept at raising political and moral issues through the devices of comedy. Where Osborne's Jimmy Porter rails against the world outside, destroying that within in the process, Ayckbourn's characters tear themselves and each other apart, and in doing so they unwittingly gesture toward the precarious external foundations of family and class 'allegiances' upon which English society is built.

Ayckbourn's preferred territory is that of the English middle-classes at war with themselves, and he depicts that war in linguistic, moral and sexual terms. While avoiding any explicit political commentary (in contrast with his near contemporary Harold Pinter), Ayckbourn is given to expressing in his dramas a critical attitude to the prevailing social climate. The critic John Peter describes him as a "domestic political dramatist", and Allen quotes Frank Rich, 'the butcher of Broadway', approvingly when, in the 1980s, he describes Ayckbourn's plays as "an immensely disturbing vision of middle-class England poisoned by the rise of economic ruthlessness and the collapse of ethics".

Allen's biography successfully conveys some sense of the sheer labour that goes into theatrical production, from the writing through casting, rehearsals, the lighting and technical work, marketing, directing and acting. The reader is left with a strong sense of the often violent pressures that build up in situations demanding extreme commitment for little financial reward, and how these pressures can affect individuals as well as teams of people. Ayckbourn's lifelong involvement in the game of cricket, another typically English, middle-class obsession, offers an interesting parallel here -- cricket involves a similar balance between individual and team as theatre does, and the cricket captain has to both control his team and rely on each of them to perform individually at crucial moments.

Ultimately Ayckbourn's notorious privacy remains largely in place despite this biography. It's the comments of others that are more revealing, and more descriptive of his work. Allen defines Ayckbourn's perennial theme as "our longing for paradise and our capacity for spoiling it". The private life of a successful playwright, director and actor might just be that paradise that remains unspoiled.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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