Orvin - Champion Of Champions: Articles by Alan Ayckbourn
Author’s Note (introduction to published edition of Orvin - Champion Of Champions)
I was first approached by the Artistic Director of the National Youth Music Theatre, Jeremy James Taylor, back in 1996 when we both met at one of Andrew Lloyd Webber's convivial Sydmonton Summer Festival bashes where you can, if you're lucky, hear some very good music, consume a lot of excellent wine and as a consequence make rash promises to strangers that you hope they won't hold you to the morning after.
It took Jeremy about five years to remind me of my own rash promise to him but back he came eventually asking if I'd still be interested in writing something original for production by the National Youth Music Theatre (NYMT). My instinctive reaction was to say sorry but no; that I never write to commission, that I only ever these days produce new work for the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough (which I invariably direct myself ) and that, anyway, I think I'd had enough of the writing of musicals to last me the rest of my life.
But Jeremy then added some interesting terms: that there could be a first production in Scarborough, that I could direct it with a composer of my choosing and - to clinch it - that there was a possible maximum cast size of 45 available. How could a chap say no?
I had recently written a family musical play, Whenever, with composer Denis King and felt he might just be intrigued and equally rash enough to consider this proposal a challenge. He agreed and I set off to construct a book which I felt would best address the brief.
At first, it was the sheer scale of the prospective canvas that daunted me. A lifetime of subsidised regional theatre had conditioned me to thinking mainly in cast sizes of five or six or, if we were very good and saved up our actor weeks, of ten maximum. But forty-five? For a start where was I going to put them all? There was barely room for 45 actors on our small Scarborough stage to stand; certainly not if we were expecting them to move as well. Well, it would save on a choreographer.
But then I reasoned that although the NYMT has a fine reputation for discovering and developing some of our most exciting young musical and dramatic talent, given that the cast were going to be drawn fifty per cent locally and fifty per cent nationally, there were bound to be some who were stronger singers, some who were stronger actors and some, let's face it, who were just along for a good time, but who would be happy to have a go at anything and, what's more, get a real buzz out of simply being part of such a venture.
The show, then, became divided into 'principals' - actors who could sing well; the 'choir' - a mixed chorus of singers who could handle the Greek style narration and thus give the show a strong musical basis and finally the 'crowd' - who sang, danced, acted, fought and generally filled the stage with sound and colour.
I shaped a story filled with complex plot but one which, hopefully, would constantly be moved along with the help of our chorus. There would be a lot of action, thrills and laughs. Generally, there'd be little justification for introducing the songs. Characters would simply sing when they felt like it; and if they didn't feel like it, then they wouldn't - or perhaps because they couldn't or, through circumstances, be unable to.
Orvin is not, you may gather, a work to be taken too seriously. It draws on a wealth of movie inspiration from Olivier's Hamlet to Danny Kaye's The Court Jester and to the opening of Gladiator; from the performances of Woody Allen, Stubby Kaye, Peter Lorre and, one of my own personal heroes, Basil Rathbone.
So it's just a shade eclectic, not to say historic. Much of the material which inspired it was produced long before the young company for whom it is intended could ever have been born. But if it serves to bring them a taste of the joys of that bygone era - long before Theatre started to perceive itself as an instrument for grim-faced serious social improvement - when swash was still buckle and sheer fun was still a lofty dramatic ambition to aim for, then these authors will be perfectly content.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.