Whenever: History

Alan Ayckbourn began 2000 with the less than acclaimed play Virtual Reality, he ended the year with arguably one of his most accomplished and well-rounded family plays Whenever.

In 1999, Alan had worked with the composer Denis King on his revue
Cheap & Cheerful before approaching him about the possibility of working on a piece together. The result was their first full-length work together, Whenever. The success of which would lead to a number of other future collaborations such as Orvin – Champion Of Champions and Awaking Beauty.
Behind The Scenes: H.G. Wells
The Victorian setting of Whenever obviously echoes the period of H.G. Wells' seminal science-fiction novel, The Time Machine. Intriguingly, Alan sets his play in 1886, nine years before Wells would write his famed work in 1895. However, less well-known is Well actually wrote his first piece of time-travelling fiction in 1888 with the short-story The Chronic Argonauts placing it firmly within the period of the play.
Whenever is a time-travelling play which draws its inspiration from the likes of H.G. Wells, Frank L Baum, Isaac Asimov and arguably the future-changing and alternative history stories of Ray Bradbury and Philip K Dick. It is a narrative packed with ideas that challenge its intended audience and shares much in common with plays such as My Sister Sadie and Miss Yesterday in that respect.

It has also been noted by a number of commentators that the narrative has a definite feel of
The Wizard of Oz to it as Emily (Dorothy) goes on an adventure in order to return home and right a wrong, with her companions of Oscar Fieldman (Scarecrow), the android Ziggi (Tin-Man) and the furry beast Hoombean (Lion). The appearance of the less-than-epic Timekeeper at the end of time is also reminiscent of the unveiling of The Wizard in Oz.

The original production at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, deliberately had many design references to science fiction films and television; Alan often referring to examples when advising the designers on the look of the costumes and props. This was clearly seen in the androids, which mixed elements of the Cybermen from television's Doctor Who and C-3P0 from Star Wars. Alan apparently asked for Hoombean to resemble the Wookiee Chewbacca from Star Wars and the sound of the time-travel machine leaving and arriving was inspired by the TARDIS from Doctor Who. It would also be remiss to note that the play is set in the same era as, arguably, the most famous time-travelling work of literary fiction, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells.

As with all Alan’s plays with music, the songs are an integral part of the narrative and not only push the story forward but deal with some of the play and Alan’s most pertinent themes:
Hailgreet deals with the familiar Ayckbourn theme of our inability to communicate and how technology is not helping this process, while The End Of Time is practically a science lesson on the Big Bang theory delivered in four minutes.

If Alan’s mantra with his plays for children in recent years had been not to patronise or underestimate them as an audience, here he brought all his experiences to bear with a play that is scary, fast-paced, demanding, funny, ominous, intelligent and witty; it can be enjoyed on many different levels and by all ages.

Whenever opened at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in December 2000 and was acclaimed by critics and popular with audiences. It was quickly published by Faber and generated much interest from schools. In 2006, it was adapted for the radio and broadcast by the BBC with Saskia Butler returning to her role of Clara with Sarah Manton - who had previously worked with Alan - taking the role of Emily.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.