Sir Alan Ayckbourn on his new radio play, lockdown and the challenges facing the theatre

Sir Alan Ayckbourn is best known as one of our greatest living playwrights.

Sir Alan Ayckbourn in his garden in May this year. (Picture: Tony Bartholomew).

But back in May, he and his wife, the actor Heather Storey, flexed their old acting muscles in an audio recording of a new play of his, Anno Domino. “It was like working with Judi Dench,” he said of Heather’s performance at the time.

“Heather and I hadn’t acted together since the Sixties, so I was really blowing off the cobwebs,” he adds, talking to me from his home in Scarborough.

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The audio play attracted a worldwide audience. “We had some people listening to Anno Domino who’d never heard a radio play before and someone said ‘oh, it’s a bit like The Archers isn’t it?’ And I said, ‘no, I hope not.’”

A scene from a past production of Haunting Julia at SJT. (Picture: Tony Bartholomew).

It seems he was bitten by the acting bug because he’s now playing all three parts in Haunting Julia, an online audio version of his play which is being released by Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre (SJT) and available to listen to from the start of next month.

Haunting Julia takes place 12 years after the suicide of musical prodigy Julia Lukin. Her father Joe, still struggling with her death, meets with a psychic and her boyfriend to seek out the truth. But some questions are better left unanswered.

Ayckbourn originally wrote the play in 1994, and since then it has gone on to have many successful productions, including two revivals at the SJT. As well as acting in it, he also directs the new audio version which was recorded at his home studio.

A ghost story with a tragic suicide at its heart hardly seems the kind of cheery festive tale some people might be looking for? But then A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens’ masterpiece, was a dark tale in many respects. “I don’t know why Christmas has this attraction to ghost stories. I suppose if you can’t make people laugh, then scare them,” says Ayckbourn.

The idea for the play came when he returned to the SJT, where he was artistic director, following a sabbatical working at the National Theatre. “I came back in time to see the singularly most successful show we ever did, called The Woman in Black.

“I remember standing at the back of the auditorium and there was one moment when I saw the entire audience jump and the whole place shuddered, and I thought ‘there’s mileage to be had in this here horror.’ So I thought I’d try and write one. Of course mine isn’t half as horrific as The Woman in Black and therefore not half as successful, but on the other hand I like the fact it goes off on a tangent and discusses a serious topic.”

Ayckbourn has thrown himself into writing during lockdown. Now 81, and having suffered a stroke in 2006, his mobility isn’t great, though his mind remains sharp. “I’ve always had a play in my head. Sometimes they’re good ideas and sometimes they aren’t so good but they all bridge to each other.”

For someone who thrives in the company of others, especially actors, he has found self isolating a frustrating experience. “It’s a very sad and empty space at the minute,” he says of his rehearsal room next door, though he could be speaking for theatres up and down the country.

The SJT is among the beneficiaries of Government financial support aimed at helping keep Yorkshire’s vibrant arts and culture community afloat during the pandemic, but Ayckbourn is concerned about the long-term future of regional theatre in this country. “It’s an enormous industry and it earns this country billions of pounds. It’s a success story and we are bloody good at it and it needs to be saved and its importance needs to be acknowledged,” he says.

“The situation needs to be solved long term. We are gradually losing the best technicians who will probably never return, and we also risk losing a generation of young actors. I heard from an actor the other day and she said she was working in a registry office doing births, deaths and marriages, which was quite good for research but she said she couldn’t wait to get back on stage.

“Theatre is always precarious and it always depends to a certain extent on a bond, in our case between the audience and its playing company, so we are at the rawest end here in Scarborough.”

Ayckbourn is one of our most prolific playwrights and a bridge between masters of the ‘well made play’ like Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan and his edgier postwar contemporaries like John Osborne and Harold Pinter. He was the artistic director at SJT from 1972 to 2009 when he produced some of his best work including Absurd Person Singular (1972), The Norman Conquests trilogy (1973) and A Chorus of Disapproval (1984).

However, he feels it’s much harder for young playwrights to make a decent living these days. “I was fortunate to be around at a time when theatres had strong support from governments and the Arts Council was new and very insistent that companies like ours did new work. So the incentives were there and the desire was there for new work. It was a very lucky time and it’s not the same now.

“I feel very sorry for a young writer these days because he, or she, writes a play and then they have to tout it round. The risk factor on new work is enormous and as a person who ran theatres in later years I realised how increasingly difficult it was to take a chance with a new work.”

This puts pressure on young talent to hit the ground running. “When does anyone ever write a brilliant first play? Almost never, and if they do write one it’s rarely acknowledged as such. Alan Pinter’s first one absolutely stoned, but now people get down on one knee whenever you mention Harold’s name and his genius has latterly been recognised,” he says.

“There are a few old dinosaurs, myself included, like Hare, Frayn and Bennett who’ve been around for decades. We’ve had long careers but I guess the writers today will have quite short careers because they will get sucked into television or movies, or box sets, that’s the big earner.”

Despite everything, Ayckbourn has been his usual prolific self this year. “When the lockdown started I thought I might as well carry on writing. I’ve finished two plays since then, neither of which I suspect will get done in my lifetime.”

He’s even started working on a third. “I think I’m like one of those old battleships where they say ‘pull astern’ and it still takes another two or three miles to stop. So I’ve probably stopped the engines long ago but I’m still moving forwards. I’m probably writing out of reflex, though I do still have the urge,” he says. “I’ve bugger all else to do apart from watching Netflix…”

Haunting Julia can be heard via the SJT website from Dec 1 to Jan 5. Tickets, £12, can be booked either from the box office or via https://www.sjt.uk.com/event/1078/haunting_julia

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