I will never apologise for writing about the transformative power of the arts, nor about the great strength of theatre we enjoy in Yorkshire and I will never, ever get bored of reminding us all of the fact that a genius walks among us. Sir Alan Ayckbourn is a playwright working today in our county and he is among the greatest there has ever been. Do let that sink in.
We are in the privileged position of being around at the same time as someone who is deservedly mentioned in the same breath as Chekhov – and he is still writing new plays for us to see today.
He is the most performed living playwright in the world by some significant margin – and with significant reason.
It’s a big year for Sir Alan. In April he celebrated his 80th birthday. It is a significant number, but one in which he is far more interested is 83, the number of his new play which opens this summer in Scarborough, as most of his new plays do.
Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present is Ayckbourn’s 83rd play and the title suggest it’s a little gift to himself.
“Well, it’s a gift to the actors I suppose,” he tells me as we sit in his study overlooking the seaside town’s South Bay, following a morning of rehearsals. I’ve been in the rehearsal room with Sir Alan a few times over the last 12 months, recording for a radio programme which will celebrate the work of this extraordinary theatrical craftsman. You can hear some of the footage on BBC Radio York tonight as I present an Ayckbourn special on the station’s Arts and Culture programme.
One of the joys of collecting the footage has been hearing from a variety of people who have shared their thoughts on this titan of theatre.
Theatre critics from The Observer’s Clare Brennan to Dominic Maxwell of The Times, Ayckbourn’s archivist Simon Murgatroyd, actors lining up around the block, they have all been eager to pay tribute to the knight of the realm and saviour of seaside theatre in the Yorkshire coastal town.
One of the reasons I wanted to make a radio programme about Ayckbourn was because I want us to recognise the significance of the man. There is also the tantalising prospect that by investigating his work through the eyes of those around him, there might be a way to unlock the secret of why he has become so important in the theatrical canon.
Bill Champion, an actor who has worked with Ayckbourn several times over the last decade, talked about why the playwright is also one of theatre’s great directors.
He told me Ayckbourn was “like a martial arts master. He just gently nudges you, you barely even notice what he’s doing and then suddenly your performance ends up over in this place and you’re scratching your head wondering how you ended up there.”
The latest morning I spent with the Ayckbourn company was with the cast of this year’s revival of Season’s Greetings, Ayckbourn’s 26th play which premiered in Scarborough in 1980. It is coming back to Scarborough this summer for the first time since that premiere production.
Ayckbourn is not a fan of looking back, preferring he says to be always thinking about the new plays and the new ideas, but watching him rehearse Season’s Greetings, it is instructive to see how this play demonstrates the genius of Ayckbourn, speaking to us today, forty years on.
There is a hysterical scene featuring Ayckbourn’s trademark comedy – which then butts right up against a moment of pure pathos. That both the comedy and sadness are so effective and essentially hold hands in his plays is one of the reasons his work is so affecting. “I think I write about humanity and the things we all do to each other,” Ayckbourn tells me as we sit in his study after the actors have been dismissed for the day. It’s why the posters for the productions of his work which hang in the rehearsal room are in Polish, Japanese, German; his work is universal.
His plays speak to all of us, although that hasn’t always been recognised. In the past Ayckbourn’s work has suffered from the same lazy categorisation that plagues Alan Bennett – he’s a writer of ‘comedic plays’, the inference being that he is somehow therefore not serious.
The thing about an Ayckbourn play is that they are, as Bill Champion described to me, like a Rolls Royce. Everything is perfectly attuned, his plays cruise along so magnificently that it’s easy to miss the massive engine powering the whole thing along. The engine in an Ayckbourn, to carry on the metaphor, could power an F1 car. It’s the structure, see. Ironic given that he is known for playing with structure more than any other contemporary playwright, but it is the structure of an Ayckbourn play that makes it so irresistible. Although, there’s also the dialogue: so much is unsaid in an Ayckbourn play. The dialogue is always only the tip of the iceberg with a mountain-sized amount happening underneath.
Then, of course, there is the action in an Ayckbourn play. He fills almost an entire act of Absurd Person Singular with the action of a woman attempting to kill herself which is, and apologies if you haven’t seen this and don’t get the context, hilarious.
Spoiler alert: I haven’t discovered the secret. What I have discovered is that, finally, we might be starting to fully appreciate the significance of this master of his craft.
Prolific playwright with global reach
Alan Ayckbourn’s plays have won numerous awards, including seven London Evening Standard Awards. They have been translated into over 35 languages and are performed on stage and TV worldwide.
Season’s Greetings: Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, July 25 to September 28.
Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present: September 4 to October 5.
Tickets can be booked online via sjt.uk.com or by calling the box office on 01723 370541.