Interview: Yorkshire Post (9 October 2017)

This interview was published on 9 October 2017 in the Daily Telegraph.

‘I’m Mr Regional now, not Mr West End’
by Ben Lawrence

Eleven years ago, Alan Ayckbourn had a stroke.
[1] And, as he lay in his hospital bed, he discovered something awful. “For the first time since my teens, I realised I didn’t have a new play in my head. It was an appalling moment. But then I laid back and thought: ‘Oh well. I have a decent back catalogue - I will just do the old ones. I can make a living’.”

Since then, certainly, his back catalogue has propped up the West End, the provinces and even, thanks to the odd revival, the National. But this has been matched by an extraordinary late flowering. The effects of the stroke were, it seems, a temporary blip - and his play count now exceeds his age (82 to Ayckbourn’s 78).

Not all of his new work has been successful.
The Divide, a sprawling piece about subjugated women in a dystopian future which debuted at Edinburgh this summer, was described by The Daily Telegraph as “more punishment than play”.

I wonder if such criticism annoys him. “When you are experienced, you know when the failures are coming, but some do rankle.” He’s thinking of
Taking Steps, a 1979 play that brought the house down in Scarborough but which subsequently stiffed in the West End.[2]

“It was done so badly, and the curtain came down in absolute silence and all I could hear was the sound of my wife crying. I wondered how the director could have killed a show that had so many laughs. A farce dies publicly – everyone can see it falls on its own face.”

Sometimes he revisits his failures - and nothing failed more spectacularly than
Jeeves, a 1975 musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, based on the P.G. Wodehouse stories, with lyrics by Ayckbourn. It was rigorously researched and the pair went to meet the ailing Wodehouse in New York.

“Andrew sang him all the songs. He was charming but not terribly with it. He was very deaf and he seemed to be particularly deaf when it came to his wife, Ethel. It was rather fun to meet him, but I hope we don’t kill him off,” he said at the time. (With ominous portent, Wodehouse died during Jeeves rehearsals.)

Says Ayckbourn of the 1975 production: “The wheels fell off. No one knew what they were doing. Eric Thompson [the director and father of Emma] was pushed off. Robert Stigwood the producer never came near it.” Nevertheless, Ayckbourn had another go, unveiling By Jeeves for the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s gleaming new venue in Scarborough in 1996, where Ayckbourn was, for many years, the artistic director.

“I only considered bringing it back because Andrew phoned me every year and said we should really think about doing it again. I don’t think he could bear the thought of having a failure,” he says.

This second, smaller production (a cast of nine as opposed to the original 25, with a band instead of a full orchestra), was much more successful. Which is perhaps why he’s now doing it again, this time at the Old Laundry Theatre in Bowness, in a production that opens tonight.

We meet in Ayckbourn’s Georgian Scarborough house, where he lives with his second wife Heather and which is lined with books and serene with the tick-tick-tick of a distant grandfather clock. Scampston, a noble-faced Burmese tom, constantly interrupts us, with Ayckbourn indulgently stroking its chin at regular intervals.

He’s a great raconteur: he talks at length about his friendship with Harold Pinter, often telling anecdotes - including a long, involved story that involved the deadpan playwright giving advice to a man in a pub who thought he had accidentally murdered his mother-in-law by pushing her into the fireplace - with his eyes closed as if he’s reliving the moment. When he does meet your eye, there’s a disarming twinkle where you can see, for a moment, the mind of a man who has spent much of his career excavating middle-class mores and much more besides.

Indeed, the “middle-class label”, bestowed on him because of such smash hits as
Absurd Person Singular and How the Other Half Loves, grates a little. “People say, ‘Oh you always write about the middle classes’, and I say ‘No. That was 1968 for God’s sake!’” And he’s right to sound cross, not simply because a lot of his work is more expansive and experimental than that - think of House & Garden, or Comic Potential - but because for years, it meant that theatre snobs dismissed him.

If one person is responsible for Ayckbourn’s cultural repatriation, it is probably the late Peter Hall. He wooed the playwright when he took over the National in 1973. “He said: ‘Alan, I know you feel you can do without the National Theatre, but ask yourself this: can the National Theatre do without you?’

“On the way home I suddenly wondered what the hell he was talking about. Of course the National could do without me. He was the consummate con man.” Their relationship was such that Ayckbourn took Hall in after a relationship breakdown. “He was fleeing from his divorce from Maria [Ewing] and he came up here and we offered him accommodation.

“The press were hounding him and there were cars full of Daily Mail journalists, and we were at the front door saying ‘Peter who?’ while Peter was cowering behind the sofa.”

This sounds like a scene from Ayckbourn’s own hand, the sort of thing that has helped earn him the title of Mr West End. “I prefer to be called Mr Regional these days,” he says. “I have withdrawn from the West End because of the hassle and its insistence on star casting, which is ludicrous.

“The damage is that some of them can’t do it and then some of them come with a preconceived image, so they bring their own fans who expect certain things. You get an actor who thinks ‘Thank God I’ve finally got out of playing the doctor in
Hollyoaks and can be the psychopath on stage’. And that doesn’t please the fans when they see nice Doctor Williams slashing and cutting. It doesn’t do the play any good either. And the idea that someone is slightly more important in terms of billing or focus is wrong. Everyone in my rehearsal room has an equal weight.”

It’s great to see that the physically frail Ayckbourn is so mentally robust - and quite remarkable to think that he is so in control of myriad characters that seem to tumble out of his imagination effortlessly. One wonders, of course, whether there is any of his own personality in the suburban failures, the corporate bores and the henpecked husbands he so excels at. He has thus far never admitted to autobiography.

“I will say that the characters are fragments of me, but they are augmented by other people. I do get close sometimes. There is a girl in a trilogy called
Damsels in Distress – she is a little independent soul called Sorrel. She is me at that age – a child convinced of her immortality and uniqueness. She is the sort of girl who turns the hot tap on and runs her hand under it, carrying on until it scalds her – just to prove she can.”

It’s a captivating image and one that sits with the twinkling Ayckbourn more easily than you might think. After all, this grand old man of British theatre appears to have the energy of a teenager.

Website Notes:
[1] Alan Ayckbourn suffered a stroke on 21 February 2006 at his home in Scarborough.
[2] The West End production of
Taking Steps was directed by Michael Rudman and Alan considers it one of his greatest disappointments with regard to the West End. It is the only Ayckbourn play to have been running concurrently in his adopted home town of Scarborough and the West End; in Scarborough, the play was a sell-out success and hugely popular and acclaimed - practically the opposite of the West End production which perversely chose to stage the play in the proscenium arch when the playwright considers Taking Steps to be his only play written exclusively for in-the-round.

Copyright: Chris Bond. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.