A special birthday for legend of British theatre

Alan Ayckbourn. Picture: Tony Bartholomew
Alan Ayckbourn. Picture: Tony Bartholomew
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A special event in Scarborough this weekend celebrates the 75th birthday of Alan Ayckbourn. Nick Ahad raises his glass to a theatre legend.

Despite the lessons of Joni Mitchell, it’s often the case that we only appreciate what we’ve got when it’s gone.

Fortunately, that isn’t true of Alan Ayckbourn, one of our most influential, important and justly celebrated playwrights.

Truth is, like his namesake Mr Bennett, who will be celebrated with a whole season of work at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in a couple of months, Mr Ayckbourn – that’s Sir Alan to us – is celebrated as often as we can find an excuse to celebrate him.

Each new play is cause for remembering how lucky we are to have him, so a 75th birthday was always going to be marked with something special.

The only possible stumbling block to marking the milestone might have been the man himself.

“We wanted to do something to celebrate his birthday, but at the same time to celebrate him. Something he’s really quite reluctant to do,” says Amanda Saunders.

The theatre with which Ayckbourn has become synonymous, the Stephen Joseph Theatre and the people who run it, were not about to let the playwright’s reluctance stand in the way. His 75th birthday will be celebrated on Sunday with a unique event being staged at the theatre, organised by Saunders.

Celebrating 75, the title given to the occasion, will feature an evening of songs from some of the country’s finest exponents of the kind of music Ayckbourn enjoys.

The line-up includes Scarborough singer/songwriter Tom Townsend, ten times winner of the British Jazz Award for Jazz Pianist, David Newton, blues guitar great Steve Phillips and a string trio lead by the renowned Peter Cropper.

A few surprises for the evening are also being kept 
up the sleeves of the organisers.

Saunders is the SJT’s touring and programming director and has masterminded the special celebration evening this coming Sunday.

Having known and worked with the Southern born, but Scarborough loyal writer and director for four decades, she was the perfect person to organise an evening with which to mark his significant birthday.

“I knew he wouldn’t want a retrospective, something featuring lots of snippets from his plays, he wouldn’t enjoy that. He’s so forward thinking, always looking to the future, that something looking at the work he’s already created just wouldn’t be him.”

What Saunders does know is that Ayckbourn is a big music fan. It made perfect sense to have something that looked like a little concert in Ayckbourn’s second home, the SJT. “That way it is actually like a birthday present for him.

“It’s a party in ‘our house’. It’s just that our house is the theatre and we share it with lots of other people,” says Saunders.

And that is one of the other major reasons for celebrating Ayckbourn. Although born in Hampstead, for an offcumden he has been taken well and truly into the hearts of Yorkshiremen and women.

He came to Scarborough in 1957 and has never left. Even though more than half of his plays – the vast majority of which premiered in Scarborough – have transferred to the West End, his home has been the Yorkshire seaside town ever since.

It means his 75th birthday is a cause of celebration for all of us. “We’ve organised the evening delicately with his permission. He doesn’t like a fuss, he’s actually quite a shy man, but I think our audiences will appreciate the chance to celebrate him,” says Saunders.

“We have audiences who have been coming here to see his work for 50 years, there are people who have seen almost every one of his plays over the years. This is a chance for those people to be involved in celebrating him and his work.”

For all his shyness and unassuming nature, Ayckbourn is a major playwright and an important part of British theatre.

He is often quoted as 
being, after Shakespeare,
the most performed playwright in the English language.

You wouldn’t think it when the soft-spoken, now unsteady on his feet following a stroke in 2006, playwright is in the SJT.

“Because he is there at the plays and he knows the audience, they feel perfectly comfortable saying hello and chatting to him in the bar,” says Saunders.

And on Sunday, those lucky enough to get tickets will be able to raise a glass and say “happy birthday” to a theatre artist we are lucky to be able to celebrate with.