Interview: The Sunday Telegraph (27 August 2006)

This interview was published in the Sunday Telegraph on 27 August 2006 and marked the first major interview with Alan Ayckbourn since his stroke on 21 February of the same year.

Mr A's Amazing Recovery
by Alan Strachan

Members of the medical profession seem an especially dim lot among the crowded gallery of characters in Alan Ayckbourn's plays. Take the sad GP Uncle Bernard in that jet-black scrutiny of a family Christmas, Season's Greetings, who manages to pronounce a visitor dead only for the 'corpse' to groan and rise again. Or the spectacularly indecisive Dr Bill Windsor in Woman in Mind.
If Ayckbourn ever writes another medical role it will be intriguing to see whether this scepticism towards the healing profession has weathered the stroke that felled him in February - and the skilful attentions of the doctors who helped him recover.
It's certainly hard to guess what Britain's most prolific playwright has been through in the past six months simply by studying the external man. When I find him in his large and sprawling house overlooking Scarborough's South Bay, he has an ebullient air. He has lost some weight - his face is thin - but when he smiles and his mouth curves into a half-moon, eyes twinkling, he needs only a bowler hat to become a dead ringer for the comedian George Robey. There are just a few clues that all is not as it was - a walking stick, a fork with a thickened handle for his left hand and piles of code crosswords, a new addiction.
Thanks to the enormous commercial success of his plays - 70 in 47 years - he is rich enough to afford the luxuries that ease recovery. Every other day, he exercises in his indoor pool. "My pulling power on the left is sometimes wonky. I have the occasional
Dr Strangelove moment, although I haven't tried to strangle myself yet. The first time I went in, I turned over like a canoe, so now I wear an armband like my grandsons," he says. Less grandly, he also owns - and uses - an exercise bike. "Up to 10 kilometres a session now, pedalling to cheap potent music on the iPod. Bach's too slow."
Characteristically, he turns the story of his stroke into an episode laced with comedy. "I couldn't have organised it better professionally - if you're going to be out of action, then write a new play first," he tells me with a smile.
When the blow fell, he had just finished writing his 70th play,
If I Were You, which will be premiered, as are almost all Ayckbourn works, at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. As artistic director of the theatre, a full-time job he effortlessly combines with playwriting, he had already planned the theatre's summer season, which includes a revival of his eight-play sequence, Intimate Exchanges. The marathon was safely cast, designed and about to rehearse.
And then, just as he'd decided "to take things a bit easier", as befits a man in his 68th year, the decision was removed from his hands. He had finished a physiotherapy session - for a run-of-the-mill dodgy back - when he realised something was absolutely wrong: "My left leg was conking out. I was seriously unable to walk."
The sensation quickly became so acute that he felt he could not drive home and called his wife, Heather, to collect him. She recognised the symptoms of a stroke and called an ambulance. The paramedics who eventually got him to Scarborough Hospital were plainly delighted to be in charge of the local celebrity, "It's Sir Alan Aitchbone," they said. "You opened our ambulance centre a while back." At the time, he says drily, they didn't seem that funny.
"The worst time was later that night, hooked up to monitors and drips, when I woke up and slowly realised that I was losing all sensation down my left arm." A young nurse sat with him while he anguished about his situation through a fog of medication. "I don't need all of this. I have a play to rehearse," he told her.
Confinement to a hospital bed brought unfamiliar thoughts and sensations. An observer of others all his life, he could now observe only himself. "It was a very strange feeling, wondering why can't I move my fingers on that hand, or my toes on that foot," says Ayckbourn.
"What sends messages through from my brain to my hands and feet?" He remained in hospital for seven weeks: his compliance astonished his friends and family, who were all aware of his phobias about needles and injections - he'd avoided dentists for years. "Just the sight of blood and I'd faint."
Undoubtedly, his willpower, always iron, helped here, yoked to what he calls "a fierce determination to recover". And soon there were encouraging signs. 'My word-recognition was fine, although the test for this was a bit surprising, when a doctor brought in a poetry anthology. So I read dramatically, and with full actorly projection, most of Tennyson's poem beginning:
Break, break, break
On thy cold grey stones, O Sea!

"My, you have got a strong voice," was the doctors rather startled response.
His speech was comparatively unaffected, "apart from, briefly, my confusion of positive and negative; when asked, for instance, if I'd like some water, I'd would say, 'No', if I did and 'Yes', if I didn't. I thought I may incorporate this in a play -
The Girl Who Couldn't Say No".
His patience snapped only over his diet. "I was absolutely ravenous." After days of 'Nil by Mouth', he was ready to revolt but was told that his swallow function had to be checked.'You wouldn't want to pour a glass of water right into your lungs,' medical staff said. A pot of yogurt settled his swallow, at which point he requested, 'One lunch, please', but no such luck. All the nurse could find was - a pot of yogurt.
"By now I was like Tony Hancock! I don't want yogurt, madam. I want food. Real food!"
What he got, of course, was NHS catering. He concedes he might have been better oft sticking to yogurt. Finally his friend Giorgio Alessio. the owner of Ayckbourn's favourite Scarborough restaurant,
[1] brought him a real meal - truffle chicken - and his first glass of red wine for weeks ("I had a swig and went straight through the ceiling").
His most pressing worry since coming home has been work: in particular, the physical process of writing. When he first started as a playwright in the 1950s, encouraged by
Stephen Joseph, his mentor and the pioneer of theatre-in-the-round, for whom he first worked as an actor in Scarborough, Ayckbourn wrote fast and furiously in longhand. Christine, his first wife, would then type the ever-more-rapidly accumulating pages. (Once, after working through the night, Ayckbourn left a big pile of new-pages on top of the cooker and staggered into bed. Christine got up, sleepily, switched on the grill for breakfast and burnt the lot.)
After their separation, the typing fell to his new partner, now wife, Heather, who runs both home and business affairs with Rolls Royce smoothness. Ayckbourn is not one to come over all soppy, but there is a world of emotion in his understatedly quiet description of her devotion since his stroke. "She's been quite wonderful."
These days, he uses a computer. Already he's back at it with emails and correspondence. He was only ever a two-finger typist, but now "my left hand is consigned to the shift-key, so my letters are a bit like communications from e. e. cummings at present".
The impression of a rapid recovery is reinforced when he talks about future plans, speaking so rapidly that it's hard to keep up. He's clearly raring to get back into the rehearsal-room, that crucible / haven for a dramatist / director, from which he's been exiled for too long. "You get the kick, like at a really good party, that compensates for the bureaucracy part of the job - and it's fun. I'm like a sort of vampire: I feed off the energy of these younger talents."
There is one quiet admission - "I'm a bit nervous about the writing", from which he speedily moves on. Traditionally, Ayckbourn never begins a new play until the most recent one has been staged, although, he adds. "I've made a little mental note to myself to write for Christmas 2007 - something wild, a bit potty', so the old fermenting process has evidently begun.
In the meantime, his schedule is awesome. Early next month he will start rehearsals for
If I Were You. "I've given myself five weeks rather than the usual four, just to pace myself. And the doctor warned me that you can get unaccountably tired." After that, he will co-direct a revival of what many rate as his best children's play, Mr A's Amazing Maze Plays ("My greatest joy"), introducing another generation to the magic of live theatre. For him, it has never had anything to do with the "traditional overtures and red curtains", but. at an almost primal level, is entirely focused on expanding imaginations. Then, If I Were You will be remounted for the proscenium stage and go on tour, which will be launched at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford, Surrey, before Ayckbourn returns to Scarborough to direct the final pair in the Intimate Exchanges sequence. All eight plays will then run over two weeks. "The future is in the young," is his belief. Next year will see the staging of The Swing of Things, by Torben Betts, [2] in whom Ayckbourn evidently sees something of himself. "He can write quite dark but funny domestic stuff. Sometimes, he gets horrendously dark and everyone gets machine-gunned or something and you have to say that's not quite what we're after - but he's a real talent." And a newer writer, Nick Warburton, whose lunchtime short plays Ayckbourn has watched keenly, will also have his play, All Right With God, [3] produced next year, alongside a programme of children's shows, lunchtime plays and Sunday-night specials. There are also plans for the company's return to New York, next year, to be taken into account. It will take part in the Brits on Broadway season, at the off-Broadway 59E59 Theatrers, where his Private Fears in Public Places was a runaway success in 2004. [4] "Obviously I was chuffed. It was a sort of vindication, like a life's work unwasted." says Ayckbourn. Plus, he wants to fit in a visit to France to catch Alain Resnais' film of Private Fears (the director filmed Intimate Exchanges as Smoking / No Smoking, the only really successful transfer to the screen of an Ayckbourn play), which will be seen at the next Venice Film Festival.
It's an impressive schedule, but it doesn't tell the whole story. Ayckbourn's standing with the critics - so high for so long - is not what it was. There are those who feel that his recent plays have declined in quality, while he has not been in the West End mainstream since what he saw as "the complete mishandling" of his probing look at contemporary London, in the trilogy
Damsels in Distress (2001). And there was what he regarded as the sub-standard revival of Bedroom Farce in 2002, which he describes as "a sad event'"
"I'm now more or less closing that route of possibly wrecking your reputation by reviving plays of which people have fond memories," he says. His disenchantment with an increasingly venal, celebrity-obsessed West End is evident. My mention of the current televised search for
The Sound of Music's Maria nearly brings on a Dr Strangelove moment: "Aaargh! I just cannot watch it!" However, the fact that he's authorised an Old Vic revival of The Norman Conquests indicates that he hasn't - quite - given up entirely on London.
He has always rung the changes in his writing, even as his major theme - the problems of relationships - has remained constant. Stephen Joseph
[5] was, he says, "a maverick who believed that theatres should implode every seven years." Ayckbourn doesn't go that far, but his busy programming and 'Event Plays' - the Normans, the Intimate Exchanges - are his equivalent of explosives to keep the theatre and its audience constantly challenged.
He knows that people are often puzzled by the fact that he chooses to remain in Scarborough and that he continues to write, even though he is wealthy. But this is to miss the essential point about Ayckbourn. Like Stephen Joseph, he is a very moral man (that is not to say that he is always a nice one - nobody can survive in the theatre as long as he has without a quietly ruthless streak). As his plays have altered they have deepened significantly in range and darkened in tone, become increasingly concerned with moral issues and coloured by his perspective on some singularly unlovely British eras. In the 1980s, and again, more recently, he saw much to make him angry. He speaks of "a culture of enterprise being sanctioned without involvement of individual citizens" and describes today's Labour party as a "PR firm".
Such views have not always met with universal agreement and critical 'blindness' certainly can hurt him (a menacing back-of-the-throat growl is his reaction to one reviewer's name). But one thing is fairly certain - he will not leave Scarborough. "The whole landscape of subsidised theatre has altered in my working lifetime," he says. Scarborough is lucky that it can exploit its star-author's back-catalogue. "We can make up some subsidy shortfalls from touring income," says Ayckbourn, but he echoes other regional theatres when he insists that "The whole pot is shrinking - and you never get funding for your core work." Nevertheless, and here the passion in his voice blazes genuinely, he admits to "a cussed determination to keep going. I simply do believe, maybe against the odds, that a theatre has a place in a community". He is proud of his plays, naturally, but Ayckbourn, deep down, is perhaps proudest of having survived for nearly four decades - in three different buildings - to extend the work Joseph began when he founded Britain's first modern theatre-in-the-round. He is still on what can only be described as that mission in Scarborough.
People sometimes make fun of the place - they love to quote the local paper's headline when the council's funding row about the theatre's priority over public conveniences ('Luvvies versus lavvies') erupted.
[6] Briefly, Ayckbourn had exploded with a swipe at the town's preponderance of pubs and shoe shops."God help you if you happen to be teetotal in this town, because there's nothing to do except get drunk and buy shoes," he said.
In less heated moods he will admit how deeply he loves the place and how vital his adopted town continues to be for him. The director Peter Hall, who first wooed him to the National Theatre, described Scarborough and its theatre as "a large playroom for Ayckbourn to work out fantasies and anxieties".
But it is a mistake to mock it: ingrained philistinism certainly survives there, as in most corners of the country, but the colossal postbag of letters and cards delivered to the hospital and Ayckbourn's home during his illness showed how much his Scarborough audiences appreciate him. The atmosphere at the Stephen Joseph in anticipation of the forthcoming season is one of palpable excitement.There's a sense in the air that, to paraphrase the old slogan, 'Ayckbourn's back and Scarborough's got him.'

Website Notes:
[1] Giorgio Alessio is the owner of the award-winning Lanterna Ristorante in Scarborough.
[2] Torben Betts is one of the many writers to have been nurtured by the Stephen Joseph Theatre during their early writing careers. In 1999, he was appointed as the resident dramatist of the venue and had his first full-length professional production with
A Listening Heaven.
[3] Nick Warburton is another writer nurtured by the Stephen Joseph Theatre. The play mentioned here,
All Right With God, was later re-named Touch Wood for its world premiere at the SJT.
[4] Whilst
Private Fears In Public Places received its world premiere in 2004, it did not run at the Brits Off Broadway festival until 2005.
[5] Stephen Joseph was the founder of the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1955 and who Alan Ayckbourn considers to have been the most important influence in his life.
[6] The article is referring to an incident - dubbed '
Luvvies vs Lavvies' - in 1997 when Scarborough Borough Council apparently had the choice to either fund the Stephen Joseph Theatre or the town's public lavatories. Despite the story making the national press, it eventually turned out to have largely been promoted by councillors negative to the SJT as the theatre and lavatories were funded from entirely different budgets and decisions on one would never have affected the budget of the other.

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