Virtual Reality: BackgroundVirtual Reality was Alan Ayckbourn’s first play of the new millennium, opening at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in 2000.
During the late 1990s, Alan’s playwriting had been on a roll. He had had considerable success with audiences and critics alike with Things We Do For Love, Comic Potential and House & Garden. All had performed extremely well in Scarborough and gone on to acclaimed and popular runs in the West End. As such, his follow-up to the successful House & Garden was much anticipated.
From the epic challenges of those two plays, Alan chose to write an intimate, relationship-based play for the smaller, end-stage McCarthy Theatre at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. It was inspired by Alan wishing to investigate the devastating potential of relationships based on sexual attraction - a theme he had previously tackled in Things We Do For Love - and an incident in a restaurant, where he noted everyone at one table was talking into their mobiles rather than talking to each other.
Alan had dealt with lack of communication before, but here he delves deeper positing why, when we have so many more ways to communicate via technology, we seem to be losing the ability to truly communicate with others. It is a theme he would return to with more success in the Damsels In Distress plays and, most notably, in Private Fears In Public Places.
The play is unusual in that it is also set in London, beginning a cycle of four consecutive plays set in the capital. In contemporary interviews, Alan felt this was due to the increased amount of time he had spent in the past few years in the city. The play also deals with difficulties of relationships with generation gaps and the different expectations and experiences each person brings to the relationship.
The play opened at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in February 2000 and was met with predominantly lukewarm or negative reviews. An oft-repeated criticism was the characters were largely unsympathetic. It is worth noting though that despite the general reception to the play, it did generate one of the most thoughtful and insightful critiques of Alan's writing for some time with an extensive review by Michael Billington which in its erudite dissection of Alan's writing generally as well as specifically to Virtual Reality, makes it stand as one of the essential reviews to read regarding Alan Ayckbourn in the new millennium (and certainly is far more perceptive in its analysis of the play - faults included - than the majority of the critiques for the play).
The climax of the play also caused some confusion with the protagonist Alex becoming one with his electronic Viewdow (to all intents and purposes, a digital window which displays computer-generated images) - it is unclear whether this is real, imagined or deus ex machina. Virtual Reality also generated correspondence to the local newspaper and to Alan himself about the swearing in the piece. As Alan has pointed out, most of the swearing comes from a hard-headed, alcoholic agent and her use of foul language was both realistic and warranted; it is also somewhat of a mystery how Alan's plays continue to generate complaints about language - very specifically how his plays didn't use to feature it - when it has been a constant feature of his work since 1974!
The play had a short regional tour afterwards and although it was deemed a success financially, the reviews did not improve and there is a distinct impression Alan was unhappy with the play. As a result - and unusually - the play has been withdrawn, neither being published nor being available for production. It is unlikely it will ever be staged again within the playwright's lifetime.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.