The Big Interview: Alan Ayckbourn

Sir Alan Ayckbourn has a busy summer ahead of him with two new plays and a revival. Chris Bond went to see him in sunny Scarborough.

Sir Alan Ayckbourn
Sir Alan Ayckbourn

ON a glorious day like this you wouldn’t swap Scarborough for the Côte d’Azur, never mind London. And sitting on Alan Ayckbourn’s sun-drenched terrace looking out towards South Bay’s crescent beach with the cobalt sea glistening in the distance, it’s easy to see why he has made the seaside town his home for the past 40-odd years.

Okay, so it’s not like this every day, but that’s what makes it all the more special when it is.

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Along with Broadway, London’s West End is a theatrical Mecca, yet it’s here on Yorkshire’s coast where Ayckbourn has established himself as one of the great dramatists of our time.

He’s widely regarded as the world’s most-performed living playwright and from 1972 to 2009 he was artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, where most of his work has been premiered. At the age of 74 and with a back catalogue as long as your arm you might think he’d be slowing down or settling down to write his memoirs, but Ayckbourn has neither run out of things to write, or lost the urge to write them. This summer he has not one, but two new plays being staged at the theatre, along with a revival of Time Of My Life, first seen in 1992.

He stepped down from the creative helm at the Stephen Joseph Theatre four years ago since when he’s produced a new play each summer along with a revival. He’s renowned for the complex staging of his plays but his latest work Arrivals & Departures is relatively simple, at least in terms of staging if not structure, and is performed in the round with a single set, in this case a train station concourse.

He’s also written a couple of one-act plays for the lunchtime audiences which ended up as farces, something that surprised Ayckbourn as much as anyone. “I’m not even farce-minded, but writing Arrivals & Departures was hard at times and these were fun to write and hopefully the audiences will enjoy watching them. They’re very jolly shows to see at a lunchtime without giving you indigestion,” he says.

As well as being a gifted writer Ayckbourn is also a prolific one and his latest plays take his tally to 78. So does he find writing easier the older he gets? “The facility gets easier but you have to suspect the facility. I’m always looking for an area where I haven’t been before. But given that every single character comes from me, there are limits.”

It’s surprising to hear him say that he still worries about being up to the job. “I’ve got this nightmare of people saying ‘oh, he’s repeating himself’,” he says, flinching at the thought. “I need to be made nervous again and I’m extremely nervous at the moment. I’m pretty happy with Time Of My Life because it’s a good cast and the play works and providing I don’t do anything stupid with it then I hope it will work again.”

This apprehension has perhaps been accentuated since suffering a stroke in 2006. “I woke up and for the first time in my life I didn’t have a single idea in my head and that was very frightening and very lonely.

“I was lying there in hospital thinking ‘help’ and then I said to myself ‘well, I’ve got a good back catalogue I can live off that as a director’. But the new ideas had gone and there was usually always at least one bubbling below the surface.”

It was another six months before his creative powers slowly started to return. “I had a little idea and I thought, ‘thank God, I’m still active’,” he says.

Although his mind has lost none of its sharpness his body hasn’t quite followed suit and he is, at times, unsteady on his feet. It must be frustrating for a man known for his energy and verve, although at least this hasn’t stymied his writing abilities. And even now, more than 50 years after he wrote his first play The Square Cat, he still questions his own work.

“I get wary because I have to make sure that it’s not just a gimmick. I’m known for weird structures and plays that happen in two theatres at once, but they always have to come from the heart of the play. It’s not enough to want to write a play in two theatres, they have to have a theme and a set of characters to go with them.”

Ayckbourn is regarded as a “surrogate Yorkshireman” these days although he was raised in Sussex. His mother was a novelist and his father was lead violinist with the London Symphony Orchestra, but for the young Ayckbourn the theatre was his calling. “I seemed to have a natural aptitude for dialogue and I had a yen to be in theatre.”

Then came the opportunity to work with Stephen Joseph in Scarborough. “First of all I had to look up where it was. Somebody said ‘you go to York and turn right’. But when I got here I hadn’t even realised it was by the sea,” he says, laughing.

Working with Joseph at The Library Theatre had a profound effect. “He was the archetypal fringe man, he felt the writer belonged within a group of actors a la Shakespeare, so I was one of those hammering out plays and that’s why my style developed as it did.

“I was writing for a summer audience in Scarborough competing with the Black and White Minstrel Show and Val Doonican and people like that. It had to be enjoyable enough for people to justify spending five shillings to get in.”

Ayckbourn found himself straddling the brave new theatrical world envisioned by the likes of Harold Pinter and John Osborne, and the more traditional style of Noel Coward and Terrence Rattigan.

In 1964 his play Mr Whatnot, starring a young Ronnie Barker, was produced in London, but instead of heralding his emergence on the national stage it flopped. He “gave up theatre” and joined the BBC as a radio producer and director working for Alfred Bradley who helped launch the careers of a new wave of northern writers including Alan Plater, Keith Waterhouse and Stan Barstow.

But then came the call from his mentor Joseph, asking him to write a “well made play.” “I was very reluctant to go back to theatre because I was having fun at the BBC,” he says.

However, he agreed and the subsequent play, Relatively Speaking, starring the late Richard Briers, was a West End hit. Its success drew praise from Noel Coward who sent Ayckbourn a message congratulating him, although initially he thought it was a prank.

“This telegram arrived and a few nights later I went to the show and I saw Richard Briers and said ‘some bugger’s just sent me a telegram from Noel Coward and there was seven shillings to pay on it, what a terrible practical joke’. And he said, ‘oh no, he was he was absolutely thrilled.’ Apparently Coward had asked ‘how old is the dear boy?’ and Dickie said ‘26’ and he went ‘oh dear God’ and clasped his head in his hands.”

He was still basking in the play’s success when Joseph died suddenly, prompting a return to Scarborough.

“I started working here again in response to an emergency request from the locals who wanted to see Stephen’s theatre keep going. Then I was asked to take over as artistic director which I did and 40 years later I was still here.”

The town and theatre have become Ayckbourn’s spiritual home and have seen him produce numerous acclaimed plays including The Norman Conquests trilogy (1973), A Chorus of Disapproval (1984) and House & Garden (1999).

Today, his work is staged all over the world and despite the lure of more exotic climes, he has stayed in Scarborough. “I’d like to think it was an altruistic decision but really it was the theatre. Back in the 80s somebody was asked why they’d come up here to work with me and he replied, ‘you go to the house of the boy with the best toys’ and I’ve been very lucky because I’ve had the best toys and a theatre where I was allowed to exercise almost total freedom.

“I did forays to the south because a lot of my shows went to the West End and I directed quite a lot of them, but I never enjoyed that half as much as coming back here.”

Why was that? “I think I was born in a company and I have a company at the moment, which is like a family, and my writing has evolved around companies.”

With freedom comes responsibility. “I could submit plays as a writer to myself as the artistic director with the knowledge that I’d get an automatic nod.

“But I think what you do have at a theatre like this is the right, occasionally, to fail. That’s important because if you can never paint a bad picture or write a bad play then you’re really hamstrung, you have to keep being terrified of getting it wrong. Most of my best plays are the ones where I’ve just shut my eyes and jumped and thought ‘ah, bugger ‘em’.”

He continues writing, he says, because he needs his “fix.” “This year the farces have popped up and it’s quite challenging to write farces because there’s no such thing as an interesting farce. “So I’ll be sat there for the first couple of performances with my eyes shut just hoping we don’t hit a brick wall.

“I once did a Ben Travers [play] up here and I asked a woman afterwards if she’d enjoyed it and she said ‘well, it was too daft to laugh at,’” he says, shaking his head with affable delight.

Time Of My Life runs at the Stephen Joseph Theatre to October 4. Arrivals & Departures, August 1 to October 5. 
The two farces: The Kidderminster Affair starts August 23 and Chloë With Love starts August 29, both run to 
October 4. For more information call the box office on 01723 370541.