Why Alan Ayckbourn is top of his game

Alan Ayckbourn looking on (back) during rehearsals for Better Off Dead his 82nd play which he also directs. (Picture: Tony Bartholomew).
Alan Ayckbourn looking on (back) during rehearsals for Better Off Dead his 82nd play which he also directs. (Picture: Tony Bartholomew).
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Alan Ayckbourn’s latest play – his 82nd – opens in Scarborough next month. Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad reports.

Eighty Two. The man has written 82 brand new plays. It is a ludicrous number to even try and get your head around, so best to perhaps just celebrate the fact that number 82 is on the way.

Sir Alan Ayckbourn is without doubt one of our most prolific, popular and celebrated writers – although truth be told, he ought to be a little more celebrated than he is.

Interviewing Sir Alan for the Daily Telegraph in 2002, Gyles Brandreth wrote: “He rarely gives interviews and does not go to London more than he has to.” The first part of that is nonsense, of course, as any regular readers of the Yorkshire Post will attest; the Scarborough playwright is more than willing to chat to us.

The unwillingness to go to London, while were it true would be an entirely understandable stance to take by the adopted Yorkshireman, is also something of a misnomer. He’s directed and written at both the National and in the West End. Proving that perception is all, it is perhaps the fact that Sir Alan has remained staunchly loyal to the Broad Acres, holding most of the world premieres of his plays in Scarborough rather than London and forcing the metropolitan-chained theatre writers to brave a journey North that leads to this false notion that Sir Alan somehow turns his back on the capital and ‘rarely gives interviews’.

No matter: here in Yorkshire, and certainly in Scarborough, we know exactly what we have with this jewel.

Sir Alan (I’m going to revert to Ayckbourn here, I know he prefers it), is currently in rehearsal for Better off Dead, his new play which receives its world premiere on September 6.

Earlier in August I was invited to the first read through of the new play at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, the place Ayckbourn ran for nigh on four decades and where the vast majority of his plays have received their world premieres.

Before the read through begins, Ayckbourn makes an extraordinary admission: he’s nervous. Ayckbourn, nervous? “Well, it’s the first time you hear it in the mouths of people, it’s the first time it comes alive really,” he says.

These days he doesn’t type, but dictates his plays into a computer: “The system is calibrated for me – it was a little tricky when I started, but seems to work quite well now the teething troubles are out of the way.”

The play clearly draws on experiences like the frustration of trying to be a writer and using a dictation programme on your computer as it tells the story of irascible bestselling author Algy Waterbridge. A cantankerous old writer, Algy has to battle against all kinds of slings and arrows as he attempts to finish his latest detective novel. The audience are going to enjoy trying to spot the overlap between the writer on stage and the writer behind the scenes.

From the read through I can tell you the play is full of moments that Ayckbourn audiences have come to expect, funny, witty and insightful, but there is a moment – I won’t say when it comes, you’ll know – where I am confident in saying that the ‘Ayckbourn roar’ will reverberate once again around the Stephen Joseph. The Ayckbourn Roar is the term coined for the sound of people helpless with laughter in his plays that has at least twice broken the tannoy system of theatres (true story).

Two weeks after that first read through, I return to Scarborough to see how rehearsals are coming along.

In the rehearsal room, a converted school which adjoins his house in Scarborough, the actors prepare as Ayckbourn sits in a big leather chair, behind his desk.

Before rehearsals begin I ask Ayckbourn about the posters on the wall. There’s one for a production of a play of his in Spain. Season’s Greetings in German. Happy Families in Japanese. He has always appeared self-deprecating whenever I meet him, but looking at the posters lining the wall, you realise it’s not so much that, as it is that here is a man who knows he sits on 82 plays. Nearly half of those have made their way into the West End. An incredible return rate.

In the rehearsals, Ayckbourn sits at the side of the room watching the actors but also following the script intently. He mouths along with most of the script.

At a desk on the stage sits Christopher Godwin, an actor who has worked with Ayckbourn over a period of 40 years, creating some of his most famous stage roles. He was the first to play Norman in the famous Norman Conquests trilogy. This time around Godwin is originating the role of Algy Waterbridge.

“His writing, well, you don’t really need to say much about that, but as a director people often overlook how good he is,” says Godwin. “I would say he is definitely in the top three or four I’ve ever worked with.”

Master of his craft just gets better

Rehearsal rooms are all about repetition; ‘do it again, but try it this way’, ‘do it one more time, but try the emphasis on this instead’. Ayckbourn’s touch is light and the process might be thought boring, maybe even tedious to some. Something about the scene suddenly strikes me: I’ve seen it maybe five times by this point and not only am I still laughing, I think I’m laughing harder each time I see it. He’s 82 plays in and Ayckbourn really is just getting better.

Better off Dead, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, September 6 to October 6. Tickets from the box office on 01723 370541 or online via www.sjt.com