Significant People: The Significance of Alan Ayckbourn

This article was first published in 2019 as part of the celebrations of the playwright's 80th birthday.

The Significance of Alan Ayckbourn

by Simon Murgatroyd

This year (2019) Alan Ayckbourn celebrated both his 80th birthday and the 60th anniversary of his playwriting debut. During this time, he has made an extraordinary impact on British theatre and - no less important - Scarborough.

As Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist, it’s obvious to me why Alan is so significant to British Theatre. But on this special occasion, I believe it’s well worth re-iterating his immense achievements.

In the list of playwrights who began their careers in the 20th century, there are very few who can say they’ve achieved quite so much as Alan Ayckbourn. He was once described as a ‘theatrical animal’ and it’s an accurate description. He began his life as a stage manager and actor, he’s been both lighting and sound technician, he’s a playwright – obviously – and an acclaimed director, he’s been an Artistic Director and has dedicated his life to the theatre. He frequently notes that his proudest achievement is not all the plays nor all the awards, but the conversion of Scarborough’s former Odeon cinema into a permanent home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre, for the company he joined in 1957 and which was created in 1955 by his most influential mentor and father-figure, Stephen Joseph. It’s not perhaps what most people would presume Alan is proudest of, but it shows his commitment to what he has always loved.

Alan’s achievements are frequently measured in quantity: As of 2019, he’s written 83 plays and no other living British playwright has produced that many plays. But quantity does not always necessarily equate to quality (although I’d argue Alan has achieved both!) So let’s ask why his playwriting career is so significant.

Alan began writing professionally in 1959 at the age of 20 with the premiere of his first play,
The Square Cat, at Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre, Scarborough. By the age of 22, he had his first play to be optioned for both the West End and for television with Standing Room Only (alas, neither made the transition). At 25, he made this West End debut with Mr Whatnot. Sadly, that wasn’t a success. Three years later, Relatively Speaking was and Alan became an overnight sensation with comparisons to the likes of Noël Coward - who himself even recognised this emergent talent with a telegram praising the quality of the play.

Relatively Speaking is still performed around the world to this day, 52 years later. It’s been adapted for television twice as well as for radio. It’s perennially popular and was revived very successfully in the West End in 2013; not many plays five decades on by living playwrights are still being revived today. It was swiftly followed by How The Other Half Loves into the West End in 1970, which was also a phenomenal success, running for two years as well as becoming the first Ayckbourn play to be staged on Broadway.

It’s in 1972, that the real significance of Alan’s work becomes apparent though. With
Absurd Person Singular, Alan wrote one of the enduring classics of late 20th century theatre and which is rarely omitted from ‘plays of the century’ lists. It won him his first major award with an Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy. Over the next five years, he would win three Evening Standard Awards for Best Comedy / play amongst other accolades.

Absurd Person Singular
went into the West End where it also ran for two years and would also run on Broadway for more than two years, becoming the second longest running comedy after Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit (1941 - 1943). It’s been produced three times in the West End and twice on Broadway as well as being adapted for television and radio.

It was popular, successful and won critical acclaim. It was also - like
How The Other Half Loves - a play which experimented with structure; a recurring theme of Alan’s plays frequently ignored. While How The Other Half Loves is regarded as the first major play to run events in two locations (occasionally two different times) simultaneously, Absurd Person Singular was the first of Alan’s off-stage plays, taking place in the less obvious location and prominently featuring off-stage characters. In subsequent years, Alan’s desire to experiment with how to tell stories on stage and the sheer possibilities of theatre become a vital aspect of his work. Be it the three viewpoints of The Norman Conquests or the simultaneous staging of two intersecting plays (House & Garden), plays running forward, backwards and in realtime (Time Of My Life) or leaping over the years – forwards or back (Joking Apart, A Brief History of Women & Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present), plays told subjectively (Woman In Mind) or cinematically (Private Fears In Public Places), plays with random elements (Sisterly Feelings, Roundelay) or branching pathways to numerous different endings (Intimate Exchanges). Not to mention the rivers, swimming pools or any other technical challenges he likes to fill his stages with. This is a writer perpetually challenging himself to push the boundary of theatre and how to tell stories.

Absurd Person Singular was followed by the award-winning The Norman Conquests trilogy, arguably another ground-breaking experiment with three plays set in different locations within the same household over the course of one weekend. Each play stands individually, but builds in magnitude and humour with each part seen. The London production in 1974 featured a cast of Tom Courtenay, Michael Gambon, Penelope Wilton, Penelope Keith and Felicity Kendall - most of whom went on to do quite well for themselves, you might say.... It was adapted for television and Alan became the first living playwright to be featured in six hours of British prime-time television and which was a massive hit for PBS in North America, even earning an Emmy nomination. The National Theatre named The Norman Conquests as one of the 100 most significant plays of the 20th century.

Absent Friends came to the West End in 1975, Alan became the first playwright to have five shows running simultaneously in the West End; the same year saw him become the first playwright to have four plays running simultaneously on Broadway.

And all this by the time he was just 36 years old.

In 1977, Alan would direct at the National Theatre for the first time, having been chased down by its Artistic Director, Peter Hall, to write a piece for the new home of the company.
Bedroom Farce was the result and it was regarded as the first major commercial success at the National Theatre’s South Bank home and would begin a long and successful relationship between the playwright and the company. Bedroom Farce is, again, another perennial favourite regularly revived around the world (and it has subsequently been revived twice in the West End) and the National Theatre’s production was adapted for television.

Let’s mention television because it’s significant. Or rather not. Alan is arguably the only major playwright of his era not to have been lured away by television and film - although plenty of offers have been made. He has written just one short filmed screenplay, but other than that has resolutely avoided the lure of the screen (despite being an admitted cinephile). Whilst there have been more than 30 television or film adaptations of his work, he is rarely involved in any way in any of them. His attention is focused purely on theatre, specifically regional theatre. His championing of and passion for regional theatre and new playwriting cannot be underestimated. And all while based in the Yorkshire seaside town of Scarborough of all places - even my fellow Scarborians I feel would agree this is not the most obvious place to find a world-famous playwright and internationally renowned theatre.

The National Theatre would come calling again during the 1980s, when Alan took a sabbatical from Scarborough to become a Company Director at the NT for two years. During that time, he wrote and directed
A Small Family Business - regarded as a highly significant play of the 1980s and a great influence on the writer Mark Ravenhill. He also directed Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge with Michael Gambon as Eddie Carbone; it won the actor the second of his three Oliviers in just five years, all for productions directed by Alan Ayckbourn! Miller would go on to say it was the best production of his play he had ever seen. Quite an accolade.

Let’s segue to Ayckbourn the director. Alan began directing professionally in 1961 at the age of 22. He has directed more than 350 productions subsequently in his home theatre in Scarborough, in the West End, at the National Theatre as well as on and off Broadway. He is, inarguably, one of the most experienced and acclaimed theatre-in-the-round directors in the world and has ceaselessly championed the form for which the majority of his plays have been written. He remains a consummate director of his own work, constantly pushing himself and anyone fortunate enough to have seen his production of
Joking Apart last year would be hard pressed to argue that, 40 years after its debut, this was the definitive production - beautifully directed by Alan and performed by his Scarborough company.

Back to the playwriting and if we can agree that
Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests - at the very least - are classics of 1970s British Theatre, then the 1980s has an equally enviable hoard to choose from: A Chorus Of Disapproval, Woman In Mind, A Small Family Business and Man Of The Moment amongst others. All could convincingly argue for a place in important plays of that decade.

These plays also highlight an important if neglected fact about Alan. People have often tried to pigeon-hole him and his work - farceur, comedy writer, situation comic - but even a cursory glance at his canon reveals that is inaccurate and unfair. He is far more diverse than he is often given credit for. In Alan’s mind, he writes plays. Not comedies or tragi-comedies or farces or any other label, just plays. Because the best plays - whoever writes them - rarely are just one thing. The best plays balance light and dark, joy and sadness. The best Ayckbourn plays can take you from laughter to tears in an instant. And he’s not just a suburban situation comedy writer as many would have it, he’s written thrillers, musicals, tragi-comedies, speculative fiction, whodunnits and yes, farces. But what is common to practically all Alan’s plays - and is a factor in his popularity around the globe and over time - is he deals in universals. He explore themes common to us all such as relationships, family and how we communicate with each other. The relationship between men and women is at the core of many of his plays and no doubt explains why his work has been translated into more than 35 languages (including Welsh, Japanese, Hebrew, Icelandic, Cantonese - even Esperanto) and have been performed from England to Australia, North America to Russia, continually for five decades.

During the 1990s, Alan dedicated himself to the Odeon / Stephen Joseph Theatre project. On top of everything else, Alan is one of the longest serving Artistic Directors this country has seen. From 1972 to 2009, he was Artistic Director of what is now the Stephen Joseph Theatre, successfully running a theatre company whilst writing and directing in Scarborough and London. This is a decade which also saw plays such as
Comic Potential – firmly launching the actress Janie Dee into the public eye, who credits Alan and Scarborough as being touch-stones of her formative years in theatre - and House & Garden; Alan returning to the National Theatre and essentially taking over the whole building with two plays sharing the same cast running simultaneously in The Olivier and the Lyttelton before spilling out into a foyer converted into a village fair. It wasn’t widely reported at the time, but Artistic Director Richard Eyre dismissed criticisms of the NT being too populist with this production by noting that at a difficult time financially, House & Garden essentially provided the financial success the NT needed to keep itself afloat.

Regarding London’s West End, it’s important to emphasise just how much of a contribution Alan has made. Take a deep breath. For every year between 1970 and 2000, Alan had between one and five plays running in the West End and / or at the National Theatre. 39 of his 83 plays have been produced in the West End (not including the fringe). He has had plays produced by the National Theatre (11 at the last count), The Old Vic and the Royal Shakespeare Company. He has directed more than 40 productions in London and is believed to be the only playwright to have had productions running simultaneously in the West End, at the National Theatre and on the London fringe.

He’s also been recognised for his many contributions to British theatre. In 1987, he received a CBE and in 1997 was Knighted 'for services to theatre'; the first playwright to be knighted since Terence Rattigan. He is the only playwright to have received both the Olivier and Tony Special Awards, recognising his achievements on both sides of the Atlantic. His work and plays have also received almost 40 major awards during his lifetime.

Can we seriously argue by this point that Alan Ayckbourn is anything but a hugely significant figure in British Theatre? There is more than enough there for anyone to be proud of or to aspire too. Yet he keeps writing and directing. In the 2000s, Alan reached his 70th birthday and suffered a stroke and, perhaps understandably, began to lighten his load. He stepped down as Artistic Director at the Stephen Joseph Theatre and turned his attention solely to regional theatre; his last new work to be seen in London was the
Damsels In Distress trilogy in 2001 and his most recent stint as a director in the West End was directing Janie Dee in the highly acclaimed revival of his play Woman In Mind in 2009.

Yet he was still writing and still writing plays of note. I would challenge anyone to not consider
Private Fears In Public Places (2004) and Neighbourhood Watch (2011) as significant pieces of contemporary British drama and - in the case of the latter - alarmingly prescient of the state of the nation; although Alan has always been particularly good at predicting trends. Just look back to Absurd Person Singular and how it is held as a pre-cursor to the rise of Thatcherism and ruthless entrepreneurialism. He has discovered a new audience for his work with his bi- annual trips to the Brits Off Broadway festival in New York since 2005, where he is lauded now more than he ever previously been in the Big Apple.

And all the while, he has largely shunned the limelight and the fame, preferring to live in Scarborough, concentrating on his playwriting and directing, shining the spotlight on and supporting regional theatre as well as encouraging young playwrights. Talk to Tim Firth or Torben Betts or any number of playwrights who got their breaks at Scarborough to hear how influential Alan has been in helping and launching their writing careers.

But there’s one other thing which also makes Alan significant. Which can’t be measured or weighed, which isn’t tied to facts or figures. It is the people he has inspired and the passion for theatre he encourages. This isn’t just the uncountable number of people around the world who have enjoyed Alan’s plays over the decades. Talk to those who have worked with him - from actors to designers, directors to writers, box office staff to administrators - and you’ll hear about a man who has encouraged and inspired others in the theatre. He inspires an extraordinary loyalty amongst people who have worked with him and I steadfastly believe he has opened the eyes of many people to the limitless exciting possibilities of theatre. He certainly inspired me when I saw my first Ayckbourn play at the age of 16 and I doubt I’d be working in the theatre today if not for his encouragement and belief in me. I know many other people who would say the same. Alan’s passion and pleasure in working in the theatre is contagious and that, to me, is just as significant as anything else he has achieved. He has given so many people, so many extraordinary experiences in the theatre.

So let there be no doubt, Alan Ayckbourn is significant. British Theatre would be a lot poorer without him and his plays. As he celebrates his 80th birthday and 60th playwriting anniversary, one can only say, long may it continue and congratulations from one of the many, many people inspired by all you have achieved.

Article by and copyright of Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce this article without permission of the copyright holder.