Interview: The Guardian (28 December 2011)

This interview was published in The Guardian on 28 December 2011.

Alan Ayckbourn: From North Yorkshire to East 59th St

by Andrew Purcell

The bar at the 59 East 59th Street theatre in Manhattan has two signature Alan Ayckbourn cocktails on the menu. The Fresh Wind, a mix of Stolichnaya, vermouth, pink grapefruit juice and Cointreau, has been the theatre's second most popular drink since he devised it for a run of Private Fears in Public Places in 2005. The Blue Montmorency, named after the garden gnome in his latest play, Neighbourhood Watch, is a combination of Grey Goose, Blue Curaçao and lemonade, shaken and chilled. "It's a killer," smiles the dramatist.

Ayckbourn moves slowly these days, a result of the hip operation he underwent earlier this year and a stroke he suffered in 2006. Although he walks with a stick and has difficulty with stairs, his creative productivity remains astonishing. He has just finished his 76th play, a set of interlocking love stories called
Surprises. "I describe it as being a play with its head in the future but its heart in the past," he says. "It revisits some of my favourite themes of time travel, androids, robotics."

The play is set in a near future where people live to be 180 years old. "It's been fascinating to be writing at my advanced age about really old age," he says.
Surprises will premiere in Scarborough, as always, before a London run during the Cultural Olympiad. [1]

For the moment, though, his focus is on
Neighbourhood Watch, currently running at 59E59 after stints for Intimate Exchanges and My Wonderful Day. Every other year he brings a company from the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, to be greeted by reliably stellar reviews in the local press. Charles Isherwood of the New York Times wrote that the Yorkshire town "should be anointed a Mecca for admirers of first-rate, frill-free acting".

Ayckbourn has even become something of a regular. In 1976, a sign at the corner of Broadway and 45th Street was changed to Ayckbourn Alley for the day, in recognition of the fact that he had four plays -
The Norman Conquests trilogy and Absurd Person Singular - running at the same time.

It hasn't always been plain sailing, though. His revival of
By Jeeves, with music by Andrew Lloyd-Webber, opened in October 2001, shortly after terrorists destroyed the World Trade Centre. It closed within a month. "I saw publicity stunts like people being served tea outside the theatre and thought, 'if I was an American, I'd punch them on the nose'." And American actors have often struggled with the nuances of his inimitably English dialogue. The first of his plays to be performed on Broadway was How The Other Half Loves in 1971, starring Phil Silvers under the direction of Gene Saks. "It was a very American show, an experiment to try to make my work American, which I think in retrospect makes as much sense as setting Neil Simon in Godalming," Ayckbourn says.

The comparison with Simon, best known for his early plays
The Odd Couple and Barefoot in the Park, has been made often enough, in fact, to become a minor annoyance. "It's no good, partly because Neil's work comes from a different angle,"

Ayckbourn says. "His older, classic scripts, you can count the jokes coming off the page, hitting you."

Of late, American reviewers are more inclined to bracket him with Anton Chekhov. Reviewing the Old Vic production of
The Norman Conquests, which transferred from London in 2009 and won a Tony award for best revival, New York Times critic Ben Brantley observed that "Ayckbourn, like Chekhov, mines the explosive potential of irritable, dissatisfied and restlessly bored people in close quarters" - two years before Ayckbourn relocated Vanya's home to the Lake District in his adaptation Dear Uncle.

At last year's Tonys, at Radio City Music Hall, Ayckbourn received a lifetime achievement award. "I was standing in the middle of the stage, feeling rather vulnerable and alone, when suddenly the whole place lit up," he remembers. "There were people piled high, clapping, then standing. I thought, 'this is like the Roman Colosseum'. I was so moved that I stumbled out my speech, turned around, quite choked up, and because I'm not too stable, nearly fell over on the turn upstage to get the award."

Ayckbourn's return comes when the stock of British theatre is riding high. The National's production of
War Horse won best play and best direction this year at the Tonys, while best actor went to Mark Rylance for his phenomenal turn as Johnny "Rooster" Byron in Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem, which proved among much else that a Broadway show can be littered with swearwords and in-jokes about Swindon, provided it's good enough. Ayckbourn points out that, in common with other successful transfers such as La Cage aux Folles and Red, both plays came from the subsidised theatre sector, where directors can afford to take risks.

Ayckbourn's plays are performed all over the United States, something that gives him great satisfaction as a champion of regional theatre. He's been approached by Seattle's A Contemporary theatre to direct his own work with local actors next year. "It's not that they can't do it, but the approach has to be set by the director," he says. "I'd need to cast it very carefully."

At a recent seminar in Chicago for members of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the actors initially emphasised the humour in Ayckbourn's dialogue - until he taught them that performing it straight, emphasising the tension and resentment inherent in family relationships, would get bigger laughs. "I told them, 'play it as if you mean it'," he says. "Play it like Tennessee Williams, please."

Website Notes:
[1] The play ran at Chichester Festival Theatre and was one of numerous artistic projects in the UK that year gathered under the London 2012 banner; it was neither commissioned for the cultural olympiad nor received any contribution from the festival though.

Copyright: The Guardian. This edited transcription and the end-notes have been compiled and researched by Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.