A lesser playwright might have slowed down after a stroke. But not Alan Ayckbourn. He talks to Nigel Farndale about critics, creativity and the healing power of comedy
From the bow window of his drawing-room, more a belvedere of curved glass, Sir Alan Ayckbourn can contemplate the North Sea. It’s the reason he moved his bed here, while convalescing after his stroke last year. Well, not his bed – a hydraulic one on loan from the hospital. The playwright adopts a comedy Yorkshire accent as he recalls the words of the orderly who came to take the bed away: ‘I see you’re standing then. Normally when I come to collect these it’s because the patient is dead.’
Although Ayckbourn’s house – actually three Victorian terrace houses knocked into one – overlooks Scarborough’s South Bay, he is not a Yorkshireman himself. Far from it. He was born in Hampstead and went to school in Hertfordshire. But he clearly delights in northern bluntness. Indeed, he tells me with an ambiguous grin about the time a local taxi driver dropped him off at his theatre in Scarborough and noticed a poster on the wall. It was for an Alan Ayckbourn play and it was peppered with press quotations praising the production. ‘If you’re that good,’ the taxi driver said, ‘what are you doing here?’
The short answer is that Ayckbourn, who is now 68, first came to Scarborough as an 18-year-old actor in 1957, liked it and stayed. The longer answer is that Scarborough is where his mentor, the theatrical pioneer Stephen Joseph, founded the theatre-in-the-round that was to become Ayckbourn’s spiritual home.
Ayckbourn is not only the most prolific playwright of his generation but also the most widely produced. He is probably, in fact, the most successful-in-own-lifetime playwright there has ever been, including Shakespeare. And nearly all of the 70 plays he has written have had their first performances at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre. Many have ended up in the West End, too. There and Broadway, where a street was briefly renamed Ayckbourn Alley in his honour.
He has two plays opening in the next couple of weeks and they follow this pattern. Absurd Person Singular, written in 1972 and probably his best-known play, is about to open at the Garrick Theatre. It stars Jane Horrocks and David Bamber. A new production of his play A Trip to Scarborough, meanwhile, is about to open at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. With time shifts between the 18th century, the Second World War and the present day, it is loosely based on the original play of the same name by R.B. Sheridan. Unusually, exceptionally in fact, this play is not set in the South.
‘I’m not sure why this is the only play I’ve set in Yorkshire,’ Ayckbourn says. ‘I suppose it is because your voice as a writer is formed early and before I reached puberty I was branded a cockney – so I still write with a cockney voice in my head.’
Actually, his ‘voice’ is more genteel than that. He is usually described as ‘the Molière of the middle classes’. His domain is usually an unspecified Middle England, probably somewhere around Peterborough. His genre is usually the ‘serious comedy’ of suburban manners – astute observations about middle-class foibles, artful dissections of the failures of family life, pitiless but funny examinations of the strange and loud egomania of the unhappy. It is said he creates happiness by depicting unhappiness, and this formula has served him well.
But his commercial success hasn’t necessarily endeared him to the cognoscenti. Faber & Faber declined to publish his plays in the early 1970s because it regarded him as ‘too successful’ (it relented in 1986, after the production of Ayckbourn’s A Chorus of Disapproval at the National Theatre, and has been his publisher ever since). What Faber meant, of course, was that Sir Alan Ayckbourn didn’t seem to be in quite the same league as Sir Harold Pinter, Sir Tom Stoppard and Sir David Hare.
When I ask him how he feels about not being mentioned in the same breath as these ‘heavyweight’ playwright knights, Ayckbourn doesn’t seem defensive. ‘I’m comfortable with it now. Years ago I did think: why aren’t I being taken very seriously? But as someone once told me, I have an ability to make audiences laugh so I should treasure that. I don’t want to lose that. There are plenty of people who can make audiences cry. Woody Allen has spent years trying to be taken seriously off and on, but we all go back to Bananas. Unlike David Hare, who writes about the state of the nation and current affairs, I write about domestic affairs. I see myself more as a Jane Austen who never bothers with the Napoleonic Wars going on around her.’
He may be known for his comedies, and occasional farces, but in recent years his plays have been getting a little dark. Does he think his stroke will make his writing darker still? ‘I don’t know. I do look at my writing in terms of pre-stroke and post-stroke. I found it hard to get back into writing because you have to be on your own and I felt quite frightened about that. I’ve never really analysed how I write and I wasn’t sure whether the instinct would still be there. I had taken it for granted, up to that point, that the part of the brain responsible for creative writing would function automatically – but a stroke is a dysfunction. I’m still not quite right. These fingers are a bit odd.’ He waves them. ‘And this foot is less than mobile. That thing one doesn’t like to talk about, that shaft of light that suddenly arrives and we think of as inspiration, would it still be there?’
Ayckbourn has two jobs, it should be explained. As well as being a playwright, he is also the long-standing artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre (though he has announced he will be giving up that demanding role next summer, to become an associate director instead).
‘When I first came round in the hospital after my stroke I imagined writing would be easier to get back into than directing, because writing is sedentary and solitary while directing is more active. But actually it was the other way round. I got straight back into the rehearsal room, with the doctor telling me it was too soon. I found it a shot in the arm. I get so excited when I get into a rehearsal room. I am like a racehorse being ushered into the starting gate, under starter’s orders.’
It helps that his rehearsal studio – a converted school – adjoins his house. Indeed, everything seems to be handy for him here. He has his own indoor swimming pool. One of his sons – he has two, both in their forties, both from his first marriage – is living with his family in a large flat upstairs. ?And one of the actors in his company is renting a flat from him downstairs.
He has no regrets about giving up his own early career as an actor. ‘At least as a writer you are standing beside the thing you have created. As an actor you are inhabiting that body they are criticising. It is direct and personal. Your personality and your appearance are being criticised. It’s like a head butt. Critics who maul actors don’t understand what it does to them. The actress Charlotte Cornwell once sued a female critic for saying her arse was too big. I did think she was right to sue. The critic had overstepped the mark.’
Surely it is just as bad for a playwright, because it is his mind that is being criticised? ‘I do get depressed and lose confidence if criticised over a new play. But I can put this much distance’ – he holds up a finger and thumb – ‘between the work and myself, even for a new play. If someone says now that they think the Norman Conquests [a trilogy written in 1973] were rubbish it doesn’t bother me because they are miles away and I have to think twice to remember I wrote them. With a new play, I am always anxious when offering it to actors. I await their reaction with trepidation.’
After all these years, all that success? ‘I think because when I write something new it really is new, sufficiently new to make me nervous. That’s the test. If I am unfazed, I know I must have written it before. That it is the same old formula. I stopped acting when I was no longer nervous about going on stage.’
He is beyond retirement age, he clearly doesn’t need the money: is it a form of failure that he still hasn’t got writing and directing plays out of his system? ‘I don’t suppose my wife would want me under her feet if I retired,’ he says. ‘Besides, I think if I walked away from the theatre I would probably die. Sometimes you need something to retire to. When I’m not writing or directing I wander around not knowing what to do with myself. But does it amount to failure? I’m not sure how to answer that.’
Actually he answers it with an inscrutable smile. For all his southern gentility, openness and politeness, there is something oddly wooden and closed about Sir Alan, as if he is a man playing himself. His voice is actorly and hesitant, a little ingratiating if anything. His laughter is polite, but he is not fully engaged. Such is his diffidence, he is incapable of holding eye contact for longer than a couple of seconds, preferring instead to stare ahead of himself. When he does try it, he has to swing his whole body round, holding the gaze almost as an act of will before retreating. He has few close friends, it is said, and finds it difficult to be spontaneous because he is always thinking ‘I could use that’. Self-absorbed, that is what he seems – the self-absorption of a child.
It is reflected in his feverish writing method. He writes very quickly, taking a week or two for the dialogue once he has his idea. In fact he always starts with the title, which goes on the posters before the writing process begins. He draws on his own life in a lateral way. He thinks his stroke, for example, might throw up some material. For a while it left him confusing the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’. A reversal of word circuits was diagnosed, a relatively normal side-effect of strokes. A title for a play has duly come to him: The Man Who Couldn’t Say No.
He finds writing dialogue the fun part. ‘The trick is to make characters sound convincingly different: some might talk in short sentences, others long, others will fade away.’ He sometimes feels they are with him, crowding round his head – and when he goes to bed they are in suspended animation until he brings them back to life in the morning. ‘My wife, Heather, will touch my head sometimes as she is on her way to bed and say: “Blimey, it’s overheating tonight”.’ He treasures his hang-ups, he says. ‘Please God, don’t make me sane. My characters have faults that roll out of me. Most of the flawed characters are me in some phobia or other, some prejudice or other. I’m sure I had terrible childhood traumas but I have mined them so much now they are neutralised.’
His father, Horace, was a first violinist with the London Symphony Orchestra. One day he ran off with the second violinist, abandoning the young Alan and his mother, Irene. Horace had never been married to Irene though, partly because she was already married to someone else, and only divorced him to marry a bank manager in 1948. (Ayckbourn had an arrangement that was almost as complicated: he separated from his first wife after 10 years but did not divorce her for 30 – and only did so then in order that he could marry Heather, the woman he had been living with for those same 30 years.)
By all accounts, Irene was rackety and bohemian. She once put two ailing newborn puppies in the oven, on the vet’s advice, and then forgot about them. A volatile woman with a fondness for drink, cigarettes and men, she would pick up sailors and GIs and tell Alan they were his uncles.
She once threw his father’s framed photograph at him in fury and told him that all men were bastards. When she died in 1999, Ayckbourn wrote a eulogy which included the line: ‘She gave me far more complexes, hang-ups, phobias, prejudices, inspirations and self-insights than any writer has a right to expect from a parent.’
‘Although I had a stepbrother, I was essentially an only child,’ Ayckbourn says now. ‘And I remained a loner. My insecure childhood gave me an emotional energy. Alan Bennett’s characters are reassuringly ordinary whereas mine tend to be extraordinary – my women, particularly, because my only contact with them was through my mother’s extraordinary girlfriends, journalists mostly. Girls remained uncharted territory for me for a long time. I was shy among them. They were another race, and I suppose that is why I was drawn to the theatre – as a way of meeting girls.’
Something else he seems to have inherited from his mother is a passive-aggressive streak. The play of his that is about to open at the Garrick is the first one he has allowed in the West End since his self-imposed moratorium in 2002. His complaint then was that West End producers had lost their nerve and wouldn’t put on plays unless there was a television personality or Hollywood actor attached to the show. The last straw for him came when a feeble-voiced and stilted Madonna was cast in a play.
Does this mean he has forgiven the West End now? ‘Yeah, yep. I won’t take the new ones there, though. They are welcome to the revivals. With Absurd Person Singular they have a cast of proven actors. None has come off a Dubonnet advert. That’s what I really objected to: the casting of people who weren’t proper theatre actors. Some Hollywood actors struggle to be heard beyond row three. And the trouble with putting an actor from EastEnders in a play is that audiences will come in who don’t normally come to the theatre and they will expect those actors to be the same as they are on television. When they are not they will go away disappointed and not come back to the theatre. My mum was a bit like that. She would confuse an actor with the part he was playing. She would say, “He’s a nasty piece of work.” And I would say, “But Mum, that’s just the character he is playing”.’ Beyond the bow window, seagulls are wheeling and screeching. It is a reminder that the theatre in this country does not begin and end on Shaftesbury Avenue.
In his slightly apprehensive way, Ayckbourn has been trying to imagine how his play set in Scarborough will go down with a local audience. ‘When you meet Yorkshiremen for the first time they can seem quite rude,’ he says, levering himself up from his chair with the aid of a walking stick. ‘If I meet them on their way in to see one of my plays they will say: “Am I going to enjoy this, then?”‘
What do they say afterwards?
He grins the ambiguous grin. ‘Usually they will say: “Not bad”.’