Cycling in circles

At the age of 83 Alan Ayckbourn is directing his 87th play considering how contemporary lifestyles are just a rehashing of what came before

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Writer’s block seems not to be an issue that troubles Sir Alan Ayckbourn. At the age of 83, the esteemed playwright and director is debuting his 87th play, Family Album, at his long-time haunt of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough.

“I tend to work in the round. I don’t need huge pieces of scenery. In fact, they just get in the way.” 

“I’ve been writing for a very long time and living for slightly longer,” Ayckbourn says. “When you get to my age, the choices open to you as far as writing is concerned are fairly limited. I mean, anyone in their eighties now has to either look backwards or look forwards.I don’t think I could write a really astute play about contemporary times, because I feel I’m slightly out of it.”

His subject choices are, he says, either historical or science fictional. Family Album, which runs at the SJT until 1 October, is historical. The new play centres on a particular house over a period of 70 years, from one young family moving into it in 1952 through to another about to move out in 2022.

“What I want to show in the play is how lifestyles have changed and also how many similarities there are,” Ayckbourn says. “The 1950s couple are saying ‘What’s happening to this country? It’s disgraceful, we’ve still got rationing’ and the 2022 family are saying ‘What the hell’s happening to this country? Why is food so scarce?’ We’re going in cycles, and what is interesting for anyone fortunate enough to live as long as I have, is to look at the cycles going on. The other alternative for a writer like myself is to anticipate the cycles yet to come, so I think my future plays will probably be more science fiction-based.”

For Ayckbourn, these cycles that link past and present go beyond the themes of his latest play and extend to the producing of plays themselves. Theatre is and always has been, he says, governed by economics and his instinct is now to go back to a simpler time.

“Staging-wise, Family Album is really incredibly simple. All you need is an empty room and a bit of furniture. For my money, when I look at it long range, theatre is probably most successful at its most simple. I think it has branched off into the vast areas of mega-expensive musicals, tied up with huge sound and huge lighting, projection, all that.”

Is theatre in crisis at present, then?

“Theatre in my lifetime has always faced a crisis,” he says. “When I was young, people were saying ‘how are we going to survive with the rise of television?’. Previous generations had said ‘how are we going to survive with the movies?’ I think now it’s ‘how are we going to survive with all this streaming and virtual holographic experiences?’.

“All these things are reproducing the essence of theatre, but they can never actually reproduce theatre itself, which is actually just a group of people sitting around and watching another group of people in a live situation. Everything else is redundant to that experience. As the old phrase goes, it’s ‘two planks and a passion’.”

In the current economic situation, then, could simplicity be a way forward for theatre?

“Yes, I think so. Look at the average price of a seat to see a show in London. Most people would have to mortgage their house to see a musical. But I think theatre is bound for a much simpler state. I tend to work in the round, and my scenic demands are much smaller than the average. I don’t need huge pieces of scenery. In fact, they just get in the way.”

Throughout his career, Ayckbourn has generally directed the first production of each play he’s written for one of the various incarnations of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, where they’re staged in the round. It’s an arrangement he says has both shaped and dictated what he’s written.

“Writing for in-the-round is very much right for company theatres – teams of actors rather than one star, and three subsidiaries. For performers, theatre in the round is a great leveller. If you’ve got one guy on stage who’s got the story, you’ve got the other guy on who’s the listener. Both of them dominate the audience equally and they both share the audience in the round. Those of you without a clear view of the storyteller are then almost forced per se to watch the listener, and so the responsibility for the listener is that much greater. I always try and make the listener’s role as important as the narrator themselves.”

As a child growing up in Hampstead, Ayckbourn inherited a love of writing from his mother Irene, who made a good living as the prolific author of short stories under the pen-name Mary James.

Sir Alan Ayckbourn pops a bottle of fizz
Above: Ayckbourn pops a bottle of fizz to celebrate with cast members on the closing night of Just Between Ourselves (1976) at the Library Theatre in Scarborough. Main image: Ayckbourn today (photo: Tony Bartholomew)

“It was a single parent family with my mother as the sole breadwinner at one stage,” he says. “She was very successfully writing short stories for women’s magazines and doing damn well. In fact, I understand she was in the super-tax bracket! The ritual was that, in the school holidays, as soon as we’d had breakfast, she’d sweep all the dishes off the table and she’d then plonk her huge, vast Underwood typewriter down on the work surface and bang away on it wait until lunchtime.

“It was a tiny cottage and I was stuck in the same room as her, so I sat up at the table and I started copying what Mum was doing. She bought me a little tiny toy typewriter which covered me in purple ink, so I banged away on my John Bull typewriter and made up stories.”

After leaving school, Ayckbourn graduated towards a life in the theatre, working in Scarborough under London-born, Cambridge-educated director Stephen Joseph. A champion of the likes of Harold Pinter and Alan Plater, and a keen proponent of theatre in the round, Joseph’s influence on contemporary English theatre is profound.

“There were a lot of people who owed a lot to Stephen,” Ayckbourn says. “He was a very much an innovator but he was not popular in his lifetime with the established theatre, because he was quite aggressively critical about most modern theatres – particularly proscenium arch theatres, which he didn’t like at all. He reckoned it was a totally artificial form of theatre. He believed very much in open stages and I think his influence spread quite a long way, because he talked to people who talked to people.”

Joseph died aged just 46 in 1967, but more modern venues such as the Bolton Octagon, the Sheffield Crucible and Manchester’s Royal Exchange would all seem to have taken a leaf out of his book in terms of staging, as would the more flexible spaces of the National Theatre.

Back when Ayckbourn joined Joseph’s Library Theatre company in his late teens, though, it didn’t yet have its own venue and the facilities on hand were still rather modest.

“We were in a public room in a public library, which was never intended as a theatre space at all, with a parquet floor, green flock wallpaper and temporary seating.

“In later years Stephen provided do-it-yourself block seating to give the room a little bit of a rake all the way round. It was probably a 200-seat space and very crude, very simple, very primitive lighting with bits of scaffolding stuck about, much to the horror of the library staff. It was really experimental theatre, in the true sense of the world, and for me at that age, it was the most exciting thing.”

At the time Ayckbourn was employed primarily as an actor, but he benefited from another of Joseph’s key beliefs: that anyone in the company could contribute new writing.

“He felt that the writers should come from within, either from the actors or from the stage crew or occasionally from the box office manager. We were all writing at one stage. He was fairly rash in his promises. Once, coming off as a rookie actor, I said ‘I could write a better play than this’. He said ‘You write one and I’ll do it’, and I said ‘That’s a deal’. So I got hoist with my own petard. I was committed to writing a play for the following year.”

Ayckbourn’s play The Square Cat duly premiered in Scarborough in July 1959. He hasn’t stopped since, and he’s still indelibly linked to the theatre established by his former mentor, taking on the role of its artistic director from 1972 to 2009 and continuing to produce new work there to this day.

After over 60 years in the business, then, is there any sign of Ayckbourn slowing down or is writing plays still an itch he just needs to scratch?

“Yes, it is,” he says. “Once we got into the lockdown, everything ground to a halt for me. Suddenly half of my reason for living was shut off, as indeed was most people’s, in that no longer were my plays being done automatically as a natural yearly occurrence at the Stephen Joseph. I was in a routine of writing a new play and then, usually a month or so later, directing it. The whole thing was a sort of seamless weaver-to-wearer sort of process. Suddenly I couldn’t do the practical end, the directing, and get the team around me which I needed for the play to be completed.”

Nevertheless, his instinctive response was to keep going.

“I thought well, okay, I’ll just carry on writing and see what happens. Of course I was suddenly like a guy at a workbench making new and different items, but never having them tested. Eventually I began to dry up from that.

“I think I probably wrote about six pieces before I ground to a halt. Some of them have survived and some of them haven’t. I mean, there’s a couple that have been done. But I’ve directed the new one and so the juices are flowing again. I’m sure I’ll be able to write on. I’ve got a couple in the pipeline already for next year, so we’re well ahead, even if I don’t survive! Like [post-war country singer] Jim Reeves, I’ll keep issuing new work long after I’m gone.

“Yes, this is my 87th play – but, I mean, who’s counting?”

One Ronnie and a rouse 

In 1969, comedy star Ronnie Barker launched his ITV show Hark at Barker. Among the credited writers were two pseudonyms: Gerald Wiley and Peter Caulfield. The former was actually Barker himself, seeking to have his writing judged without bias; the latter was Ayckbourn.

“Ronnie Barker was in my first West End disaster [in 1964], which was called Mr Whatnot,” Ayckbourn recalls. “He got quite friendly with me. Then, when he was doing a new telly series, he thought of me. I got a message from London Weekend Television: would I be interested in writing him a few situations? He’d co-provide the dialogue.”

Ayckbourn contributed material with Barker as ageing aristocrat Lord Rustless, essentially a rebranded version of the character he’d played in Mr Whatnot. However, Ayckbourn was contracted as a BBC radio drama producer, partly in response to the critical mauling Mr Whatnot had received.

“I was working for the BBC and Hark at Barker was a commission from commercial television. That was way outside my contractual obligations! I had to keep it very secret, so I wrote it under a pseudonym.

“As it happens, the show was very successful. Ronnie said ‘We’re up for a BAFTA, can you make it to the ceremony?’. I said ‘Ron, you’ll have to go without me. If I appear in front of a television camera I’m going to be fired from the Beeb. They’ll say What are you doing? You’re in complete breach of contract’. We’d made up this ridiculous story about Peter Caulfield being a reclusive writer who lived in Scotland and was very shy of publicity. I’ll never forget Peter Caulfield. He had a short, successful career. I’m sure people have been looking for him ever since: ‘Do you think Peter Caulfield would write another show for us?’’

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