Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Alan Ayckbourn: 'It's a love-hate thing with theatre'

Does Sir Alan Ayckbourn actually enjoy the theatre? The fact is, the great man of the British stage, the first playwright to be knighted after Terence Rattigan, can't stand most of it. It makes him cringe. “It's a love-hate thing,” he says. “I love that moment when a show is firing on all cylinders in a room full of people who are having a great time. But the rest of it is really irritating. Come on ... why are we sitting in the dark? We all know it's only a play - so get on with it! I hate what Stephen Daldry once called 'burglar's theatre' - you know, suddenly everything goes dark and people in black called stage hands creep on and steal vases and things. If you are going to ask people to be stuck in the dark you've got to surprise them. I try to make my plays events, not plays, with lots of things happening.” There's a trait here. Ayckbourn's father, Horace, disliked music and thought Beethoven was rubbish - a drawback for the first violinist of the London Symphony Orchestra.

Young Ayckbourn ruled the West End by writing the sort of plays he wanted to see. In one year alone (1975) he had five plays on in London simultaneously. He was - and still is - a purveyor of laughter to the middle classes, who found themselves reflected, judged and found wanting in plays full of broken hearts and malfunctioning household gadgets.

His experimental plays (The Norman Conquests was three plays all set on the same weekend seen from three different parts of the house; Intimate Exchanges has 16 plot variants) were as daring as they were commercially successful. His Noël Coward-like grip on the public taste made him a fortune, much of which he ploughed back into his own theatre - his train set, he called it - on the Yorkshire coast, where he first went in 1957.

He's still there, working as a playwright and artistic director (unsalaried by choice) of the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Ayckbourn, twice as prolific as Shakespeare, will be 70 in April. He was lucky to make 69 after a serious stroke two years ago, which has slowed him up.

“I have yet to write my stroke play but I dare say it will come,” he says. On the other hand, death is at the front of his mind. “When you get older, you go to a few funerals. You don't know what to say to the woman - and it's usually a woman. You start this awful business, 'He was a terrific bloke', and they look at you as if saying, 'Yes, yes, get it over with'. My new play is about a woman who is just coming to terms with the death of her husband, and all her family are doing the crying on her behalf.”

Lady Ayckbourn (the former actress Heather Stoney) has her work cut out with his recuperation and his son (by his first marriage) and grandchildren living in the flat upstairs in their house in Scarborough's Old Town. In hospital he took the decision to retire from running the theatre he's been the head of since 1972.

“Before the stroke I had a blithe confidence in immortality - I thought, 'Maybe He'll miss me out'. I had cut back on my directing by not doing other people's plays, which I found totally exhausting because of the responsibility. So I have now given up the administering and the planning and what I am left with is directing my own plays and writing them. It's about as much as I can cope with”.

Next spring, the director Chris Monks will take over the running of the Stephen Joseph Theatre (formerly the Library Theatre). He has already asked Ayckbourn for a new play for 2009.

In the meantime another new Ayckbourn opens this week. Life and Beth - with Liza Goddard and Susie Blake - is about a widow facing her first Christmas alone. “It's all about taking the famous Philip Larkin text, 'They f*** you up, your mum and dad' - the disastrous effect parents have on their children and sometimes the other way round. I describe it as my Blithe Spirit. It's still quite sad. You can't write a play about a recently widowed woman at Christmas without it getting sad.”

His own childhood was a lonely business after his father left his mother for the orchestra's second violinist when Ayckbourn was young. His ciggie-toting, magazine-journalist mother took up with a bank manager - another unsatisfactory relationship which Ayckbourn has parlayed into umpteen plays.

Two things about this new play are typically Ayckbournian. Ticket prices are affordable, a belief instilled in him by his mentor Stephen Joseph in whose honour he renamed the in-the-round theatre and whose house he bought. Secondly, he writes superb parts for actresses. His plays are full of women: vivid, memorable, victimised. As so often in Ayckbourn, the laughter conceals the seriousness of the content.

He's been in Scarborough so long people think of him as local. He's not - he's a southerner who went from Haileybury public school straight into theatre to meet girls. At a tender age he married and had two boys. He split from his first wife after ten years but didn't divorce her for another 30, when he tied the knot in 1997 with Stoney.

“I came to Scarborough in 1957 as a sprog assistant stage manager playing small parts. I remember I got off the train packed with holidaymakers and this bracing air and smell of chips. I said, 'Wow!' Because I was an inland child living in north Sussex, one of the great treats as a child was a trip to the seaside - so, dear reader, I bought the sweet shop. I came to the seaside and stayed. I thought, 'This can't get better'.”

His old hits never go away. The Norman Conquests will be staged at the Old Vic in September. The pattern was for years that his new plays would go from Scarborough straight to the West End. Recently, however, he has grown disillusioned, refusing to allow his new plays into London because of the way a transfer a few years back was mangled.

“I know I sound blimpish but I do feel the straight play is a doomed species. And what I get really angry about is the terrible starvation of the theatre out of London. You can see it in insidious ways. The death of regional work is very serious. You pick up the programme of the average rep company and you find no individual voice - it's all co-productions with other theatres. Or it's 'devised' work, and most of that is rubbish.”

One day the Stephen Joseph Theatre will have to cope without Ayckbourn. For the time being, though, the house writer has no intention of stopping work.

“Two things I live for. One is being in a rehearsal room. The other is writing a new play. As soon as a new play comes out there's a terrible moment of post-partum emptiness - and then another idea comes in, sometimes two or three. I just can't imagine being alive without a play in me somewhere,” he says, getting up, pregnant with play No 72, his Christmas show.

Life and Beth opens at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough (01723 370541), tomorrow. The Norman Conquests trilogy previews from Sept 11 at the Old Vic, SE1 (0870 0606628) and opens on Oct 6

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