Dear Uncle: BackgroundAlan Ayckbourn has always cited Anton Chekhov as one of his major inspirations and his writing is most frequently compared to that of Chekhov. In October 2008, he was approached to write a new adaptation of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya for the West End by the producer David Pugh with Matthew Warchus as director. This was in the immediate aftermath of Warchus directing The Old Vic's award-winning and highly acclaimed revival of Alan's trilogy The Norman Conquests. Alan's immediate response was to question why a new adaptation was needed of the play given there were already such a well regarded adaptation by Michael Frayn. The response was they wanted an Ayckbourn version - and apparently something slightly less Russian!
Although first mooted in 2008, Alan's part in the play was only officially confirmed and came to light in an interview with him on the website whatsonstage.com, published in February 2009 (sadly, now unavailable). However, prior to this, it was preceded by a gossip piece on the Daily Mail website on 29 January 2009. This led with the unlikely news that American actress Maggie Gyllenhaal was interested in reprising the role of Yelena she was currently playing in Uncle Vanya in New York, but in an entirely different West End production of the play being written by Alan Ayckbourn. The article went on to mention the project, opening in late 2009 or early 2010, involved the actors Ralph Fiennes and Ken Stott and noted the then rising actress Carey Mulligan was also interested. These casting rumours, which were all to prove groundless, were reprinted verbatim in several publications.
The Daily Mail followed up its January 2009 story on 26 February 2010 with another piece in the entertainment gossip column noting the play, given a title for the first time of Dear Uncle: Scenes From A Country Life In Four Acts, was being planned for summer 2011 with Warchus still directing and Fiennes and Stott being joined by Kristin Scott Thomas and, if available, Carey Mulligan; who had just won a BAFTA for Best Actress. Whilst Pugh had apparently been in negotiation with Fiennes and Stott regarding the piece, only the title of the play would actually prove to be accurate to what eventually transpired.
Later that day, Variety published what can be regarded as the first 'official' announcement of an intention to stage the play with the producer David Pugh quoted in a statement of intent on how the production would be staged: "I don't want it to be another West End production in a traditional theatre. The Norman Conquests worked very successfully in-the-round and we're looking to find somewhere different where we could do that shape again.... It's sufficiently far off for us to to get a star for every part."
Alan had, meanwhile, begun writing the play in 2009 from a new literal translation of the play by Vera Liber; who he worked with previously on his adaptation of Ostrovsky's The Forest. His aim was to stay true to the play, but he transferred the action to the Lake District in 1935; a period prior to the tourism-orientated focus of the Lakes that we know of today, but when changes were beginning to take place. He reduced the cast to eight people and it was completed by May 2009.
By mid 2010, it became increasingly obvious the project was going to struggle to find a time suitable for all the intended participants, particularly with Matthew Warchus's schedule full until mid 2011 at the earliest. As a result, it was suggested that rather than let the completed play lay unused, that Alan be allowed to produce it himself should the opportunity arise. Although Alan was unconvinced Dear Uncle was necessarily a good fit for his home theatre, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, the venue asked to stage the world premiere production. Alan agreed to stage it in repertory with the world premiere of his 75th play Neighbourhood Watch during the summer of 2011; the two plays shared the same company of eight actors with Dear Uncle premiering at the venue on 12 July 2011.
The world premiere of Dear Uncle was well-received by critics with The Guardian and Financial Times awarding it four-star reviews. As of writing, it has neither been published nor produced again - although it is available for production. It remains a fascinating piece, combining the sensibilities of both Chekhov and Ayckbourn whilst allowing Chekhov's original play to shine through. It is, arguably, the most accomplished of Alan Ayckbourn's adaptations of existing works.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.