Better Off Dead: History

Better Off Dead is Alan Ayckbourn's 82nd play and, unusually, it was announced by the playwright more than a year in advance of its world premiere at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in 2018.
Behind The Scenes: Wives or Detectives?
Within The Times interview with Dominic Maxwell on 22 July 2017, mention is made of
Better Off Dead replacing A Case Of Missing Detectives. This is not an alternative title for the never to be produced A Case Of Missing Wives, but was an error on the part of The Times. Unfortunately, given websites such as Wikipedia seem to enjoy claiming unimpeachable veracity from newspaper websites, it is necessary to make clear that there has never been a play called A Case Of Missing Detectives.
The play was confirmed in an interview with Alan Ayckbourn in The Times in July 2017, two months prior to the world premiere of his 81st play, A Brief History Of Women. The interview also conflated the play with the creation of an unproduced work, A Case Of Missing Wives - which had actually been his intended 81st play.

In October 2016, Alan Ayckbourn wrote
A Case Of Missing Wives - a police procedural set in the fictional town of Dreadcliff in Yorkshire - but was unhappy with it and wrote another play, A Brief History Of Women, before returning to A Case Of Missing Wives and revising it to his satisfaction. Both plays were then offered to the Stephen Joseph Theatre's Artistic Director Paul Robinson as potentially Alan's 81st play to be premiered during the SJT's 2017 summer season; Paul chose A Brief History Of Women.

There was then some expectation that
A Case Of Missing Wives might become his 82nd play to be premiered during the 2018 season at the SJT, but during Spring 2017 Alan wrote another new play, Better Off Dead, which recycled and renamed two of the police characters from A Case Of Missing Wives, but within a completely different plot. He later acknowledged that A Case Of Missing Wives would be shelved and probably never produced.

Better Off Dead was confirmed as his 82nd play to be premiered during 2018 at the SJT in his interview with The Times along with the intriguing tease that the play is kicked off by a writer who reads his own obituary. In later interviews, the playwright revealed the central character - Algy - is a reclusive, slightly grumpy and prolific writer based in Yorkshire, who writes in a shed in his garden; Alan would rebut suggestions it was autobiographical whilst acknowledging there are similarities between the author and himself - as well as many other writers. It is, notably, one of his few plays to be set firmly and identifiably in Yorkshire, in this case the Esk Valley near Whitby.
Behind The Scenes: Thriller
The programme for the world premiere of
Better Off Dead included the opening pages of Algy's final DCI Middlebrass book Final Fanfare - written specially by Alan Ayckbourn.
The play would also continue a theme previously explored in plays such as Woman In Mind and Improbable Fiction where the line between fantasy and reality is blurred as Algy's final book in his DCI Middlebrass series begins to collide with Algy's reality. The choice of a fictional detective story reflects Alan's passion for thriller novels with a particular favourite being Jo Nesbo. To differentiate between the 'fictional' scenes of the detective novel Algy is writing and the 'real' scenes, Alan set all Middlebrass's scenes at night and all Algy's scenes in daylight.

The first draft of
Better Off Dead was completed in June 2017 and it was announced in December 2017 the play would run at the Stephen Joseph Theatre from 6 September to 6 October 2018, directed by Alan Ayckbourn in repertoire with the playwright's 1978 play Joking Apart.

Although cast in conjunction with
Joking Apart, the role of Algy was specific to Better Off Dead and featured Christopher Godwin marking his first performance in an Ayckbourn play directed by the playwright since 1978. Christopher is a key figure in the history of Alan's plays originating role such as Norman in The Norman Conquests, Dennis in Just Between Ourselves and Malcolm in Absent Friends among others.
Behind The Scenes: Same name, different person
Better Off Dead, Algy's literary agent is called Jason Ratcliffe. Keen Ayckbourn fans will recognise the name from the agent in Drowning On Dry Land. Yet despite sharing there same name, they are not the same character. Alan had not realised he had used this name before and upon learning this, deciding he liked it too much to change.
One of the obvious questions posed by Better Off Dead is how auto-biographical is the play? After all it centres on a veteran Yorkshire-based who dictates his plays in a garden shed. Whilst there are undoubtedly aspects of Alan's character in Algy and subtle nods to his personal life within the play, the playwright has denied it is autobiographical or, more accurately, any more autobiographical than any of his other plays. He has always contend that all his characters are generated from himself and, arguably, the character of Algy is no more representative of Alan than Algy's PA's experiences with his website is representative of this website to Alan - one hopes!

If anything, the play is about legacy and the acceptance of it. Do we have any control over our legacy and should we? Algy's 33 'Middlebrass' novels have fallen out of favour - partly due to Algy's protectiveness of them - and to his mind, his important work - his legacy - is lost. Yet by the climax of the play his legacy is perhaps ensured but from an unexpected and - initially - unwelcome angle. To draw the comparison to the playwright himself, he has frequently mentioned how he despairs when people tell him their favourite play - or the best play he has written - is
Relatively Speaking in 1967. Is that a career then wasted if he has apparently never improved upon this? Or should an artist be grateful that at least something has made an impact and will form the basis of a legacy.

Better Off Dead, like several of the plays which preceded it such as Arrivals & Departures Roundelay, also explores memory - such as the way we are remembered. Algy's wife, Jessica, has dementia and is unable to recognise her husband whilst still retaining a clear memory of their lives together. Meanwhile Algy's perception of himself is revealed to be not quite as he remembers it as those around him reveal how his actions in the past have affected both him, his career and the people around him. The playwright is exploring how this affects our perceptions of the world and the way we are perceived.

The reception to the play included four stars reviews from a number of publications including The Times, The Observer and The Stage with Christopher Godwin's performance coming in for particular praise.

Better Off Dead embarked on a short in-the-round tour during autumn 2018 to the New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme and The Old Laundry, Bowness-on-Windermere.

Better Off Dead was published by Samuel French during 2020 and is available to produce by both professional and amateur companies.

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