Drowning On Dry Land: Background

One of Alan Ayckbourn’s most significant plays of the 1980s was Man Of The Moment, an incisive look at the media and the cult of celebrity. Inspired by the Great Train Robbery, it featured a criminal (Vic Parks) who had become a celebrity primarily on the back of his past notorious activities. In 2004, Alan returned to theme with his 66th play Drowning On Dry Land.

At the core of Drowning On Dry Land is a examination of a 21st century phenomenon, that of fame and fortune coming to those who have no appreciable talents and whose celebrity is arguably undeserved. It also touches upon the extremes people will go to to achieve celebrity status.

Behind The Scenes: First Title
Drowning On Dry Land was not the original title for this play. During the Piers Morgan's documentary series The Importance Of Being Famous, Alan was struck by a particular moment with "a girl on TV jumping up and down, waving her arms and asking, 'am I famous yet?'" Inspired by this, the play was initially called Am I Famous Yet?
The play was partially inspired by Piers Morgan's 2003 television documentary series The Importance of Being Famous with Alan fascinated by the antics of 'ordinary' people desperately trying to achieve their 15 minutes of fame.

Within
Drowning On Dry Land, the celebrity is Charlie Conrad, who has achieved fame and fortune through his inability to achieve anything. In contrast, his wife - Linzi - was a television presenter but has been out of the business for seven years raising a family and, at the other end of the scale, there's the entertainer Marsha, Charlie's 'absolute number one fan.' The play questions not only how celebrity can be so easily achieved today, but also how people desire it and claim - or reclaim - it. The fall of Charlie as the result of an innocent indiscretion leads to Marsha capitalising on her 'hero's' downfall to achieve her own celebrity and as a means for Linzi to get back into the world she misses and craves.

Behind The Scenes: Title Inspiration
The actual title of the play is a quote from an old English proverb discovered by Alan: "Browsing through one of my dictionaries of quotations, I came across an old English proverb: 'It is folly to drown on dry land.' Heaven knows how old or English it is, but I liked it, especially since I had chosen to set the play in a folly. Not that there's anything symbolic in that, of course. Heaven forbid."
This is combined with an exploration of how disposable celebrity culture can be and how fame can be taken away as quickly as it is given, the ruthlessness of the media in moving from one hot property to the next and how people come to terms with not being famous any more.

Ironically the play achieved publicity for not only dealing with this subject but also by coincidental timing. Although the play had been written some months earlier, its premiere coincided with the tabloid scandal of footballer David Beckham having an
alleged affair with his PR assistant Rebecca Loos; the incident coincidentally mirroring the play's 'celebrity star' Charlie being caught 'in flagrante' by a journalist. With this unintentional timing, the play became more relevant than ever. In subsequent years, the play has come to seem even more prescient with the emergence and often equally sudden disappearance of celebrities generated from the plethora of reality television shows such as Big Brother.

Behind The Scenes: Private Fears
The company of Drowning On Dry Land proved to have an inspirational effect on Alan Ayckbourn. During rehearsals for the play, Alan was inspired to write a new play and wrote Private Fears In Public Places, which was hastily fitted into the summer schedule featuring the same company.
The play opened at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in May 2005 appropriately starring Stephen Beckett; an actor who had recently left the popular and long-running British soap opera Coronation Street and was obviously familiar with the concept of celebrity. While the play undoubtedly benefited from its pertinence, the critical response was generally lukewarm and was frequently compared unfavourably to Man of The Moment.

However, most critics agreed the second act's first scene in which Charlie’s lawyer Hugo verbally mauls the woman accusing Charlie of taking advantage of her, was a classic piece of Ayckbourn writing.

Behind The Scenes: Follies
Drowning On Dry Land is set in a folly in the grounds of Charlie's house. In architecture, a folly is a building constructed primarily for its appearance with no apparent practical use - despite its apparent and often extravagant appearance. In the play, Charlie's folly is a tower which has been built with apparently no way to access the top of the building, instead featuring a staircase which whilst giving the illusion of going up or down, actually only leads to one of the two entrances at the base of the folly.
Drowning On Dry Land would tour the following year from the Stephen Joseph Theatre with an end-stage production which required a more literal interpretation of the folly around which the action takes place. In the original production, the mysterious folly is largely left to the imagination, but for the tour, a more substantial structure was constructed (see Images). The tour was successful and the play was published by Faber in the collection Alan Ayckbourn - Plays 3 in 2005 and by Samuel French as an acting edition the following year.

Since 2003, Alan had been extremely reticent about letting his plays be produced in London following the treatment of the
Damsels In Distress trilogy and a disappointing revival of Bedroom Farce in 2002. As a result of this, he issued a moratorium on his new work opening in the West End and was extremely cautious about productions in London in general. However, in 2011, Drowning On Dry Land become one of his few plays written since 2003 which to have a London production when it was staged at the Jermyn Street Theatre. The production was well-received and featured Les Dennis taking the role of Charlie's agent, Jason.

In the years since, the play has proved to be popular, particularly with amateur productions.

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.