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Wednesday, 9 August, 2000, 12:41 GMT 13:41 UK
Two sides to Ayckbourn story
David Haig plays Teddy in House and Garden
David Haig plays Teddy in both House and Garden
Two plays by Britain's most prolific major playwright, Alan Ayckbourn, open at the same theatre in London on Wednesday.

House and Garden are two self-contained plays which offer differing perspectives on the same story, in and outside the same house.

The same cast of actors are required to run between the National Theatre's Lyttleton and Olivier stages, performing the interwoven plays simultaneously.

Audiences will be encouraged to see both plays, which concern a would-be Tory MP's confused private life (House) set against the backdrop of preparations for a village fête (Garden).

Logistics

When a character exits through the French windows on the set of House, they appear a couple of minutes later on the fake-grass scenery of Garden next door.

The two stage managers use a communication system to co-ordinate exits and entries, avoid near-misses, and ensure that the two productions run perfectly in synch.

Demonstrating an impressive athleticism, actors take about two minutes - or 90 seconds at a dash - to move between the two stages.

Jane Asher in House and Garden
Jane Asher, a major character in House, has a three-minute role in Garden
The stages, both in the same building, are separated by three flights of stairs and several corridors.

Characters must maintain the impression they have strolled through a door rather than having run through a maze of corridors.

In Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre, where the plays premièred, the two stages were much nearer to each other - a mere 35 seconds apart.

'Emergency dog'

Allowances for the time actors need to get between stages are written into the play.

Extra speeches and a device called the "emergency dog" allow whoever is on stage to play for time.

Actress Alexandra Mathie explains: "The dog will bark and one has to respond in character to the dog in some way. So we're discovering our attitudes to dogs as well."

Experiments

This nightmare of synchronisation - the plays must begin and end simultaneously - extends Ayckbourn's experiments with time and space.

In The Norman Conquests, the same events were seen from different perspectives in three plays.

Intimate Exchanges had 16 possible endings and A Small Family Business - recently revived at Chichester - was set on two levels of a house.

The playwright wrote each scene in parallel but says he nearly got mixed up: "The nightmare was ending up with all the actors in one theatre."

Ayckbourn, whose Comic Potential received a nomination for Best New Comedy at this year's Olivier Awards, is best known as a writer of comedies.

But the dramatist finds the suggestion strange: "There's a sort of implication there that if you've written a comedy you haven't written a play - you've written something rather silly."


House and Garden are showing in repertory at the National Theatre until 23 September.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
David Sillito reports for BBC News
"You have to go twice to see what happens when the characters disappear offstage"
Mark Lawson reports for Radio 4's Front Row
Running around with the actors backstage on House/Garden
Sir Alan Ayckbourn on Radio 4's Front Row
"Most of my comedy doesn't come from dialogue"
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