Alan Ayckbourn interview: At home with the human heart

Alan Ayckbourn, 60 today, doesn't do much for critics. The public knows better.
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Alan Ayckbourn will be surprised if he enjoys his birthday today: "I'm not a sort of Woody Allen, a man who takes rain personally," he says. "But I do have a feeling that you must not celebrate too much. I always prefer giving parties for other people."

He is actually Sir Alan, the first playwright to be knighted since Terence Rattigan. He is Britain's most prolific playwright - he was auditioning for his 54th and 55th plays in London last week. But he is also the most ingenious, perhaps the most melancholic, and certainly the most successful of this country's playwrights - in terms of performances, translations, and income.

This commercial success contrasts with his critical reputation. The works of Harold Pinter, Sir David Hare, and Sir Tom Stoppard have been subjected to an avalanche of academic analysis, but Ayckbourn's career has inspired a meagre output: two American and one English doctoral theses. The author of the English thesis was told by his professor that if only Ayckbourn were dead, it would be easier to rate him.

Judges like Sir Peter Hall believe that Ayckbourn's plays will last as well as, if not better than, those of his contemporaries. They tell us more about the state of the human heart and the family than about the state of the nation, and it's Ayckbourn's lack of political engagement which riles some critics.

When I met him in his Docklands loft last week, he suggested that, after 60 years, he can live with the state of his reputation: "I used to be a bit chip- on-the-shoulder about it. I'm popular, which is always very suspicious. When Peter Hall put my plays on at the National Theatre, people said, `How can you produce this boulevardier?' But my plays are peculiarly scored for the theatre. I've always had a horror of my plays being set books."

When Penguin refused to publish his plays, they said they were not of sufficient literary merit. He was, in a way, flattered by that: "The sentences of my characters tail off - something I learned from Pinter. Let the dots do the talking. But I think the question about literary merit is one of the reasons I'm not lionised." Well, my intention is to lionise Alan Ayckbourn.

Ayckbourn discovered Bob Peck, who died last week aged only 53, scene- painting in a basement in Leeds. Peck was cast with Michael Gambon - a great Ayckbourn actor - in the National Theatre production of A Chorus of Disapproval. The plot sees life as a reflection of the theatre - self- centred, unsympathetic, without feeling, and quite ridiculous. Peck had experienced the impact of Ayckbourn's dialogue, and as Gambon approached the climax of a comic routine, he warned younger members of the cast that they should brace themselves. "The roll started in the circle, and by the time it reached the Olivier stage it was like a shock wave of laughter. A wonderful feeling."

If Ayckbourn's work has improved over the years, it is because he has become more courageous in his range of subjects for humour. This began with Absurd Person Singular in which the best running joke is continually thwarted attempts at suicide in the kitchen. He juxtaposes the sad and funny sometimes so painfully that you can't bear to laugh, but can't stop yourself doing so. Ayckbourn also pushed out stylistic frontiers in the theatre with plays like The Norman Conquests, a brilliant concoction of three self-contained plays featuring the same people in three rooms of the same house over the same weekend. Sisterly Feelings offered four different endings to the same play; which one it was depended on the toss of a coin at the end of the first scene.

He puts four weeks aside for writing a new play, and normally finishes it in two. Ayckbourn is a compulsive storyteller whose brain never stops plotting. "The moment I finished the latest one, about two weeks ago, my head was empty. I felt a mixture of relief and panic - then, after 48 hours, a scene came into my head. It rolls on through the months, gathering substance. I look out of the window and see a river policeman and I'll bring him into the story. Dramatists have an obligation to tell a story." A plot builds up in his head like water behind a dam. When he is ready, the words simply cascade out.

Ayckbourn started in the theatre straight from public school (Haileybury), and he prides himself on having been one of the first stage managers in the English theatre to use a tape-recorder for sound effects. He has always been fascinated by technology, and speaks fondly of the cut-and-paste facility on his word processor. He thought he might go one better with the software that is intended to transpose the human voice into words on a screen. "It always makes absolute gibberish of what I'm saying," he says. His gibberish machine may yet make a stage appearance.

"You mine away at the coal-face which is yourself. People ask me, `Where do these extraordinary people come from?' I say, `Well, they're actually me'." He is a keen observer of his own obsessions. (One is the need to replace dud lightbulbs instantly; he quite expects to die, aged 80, falling off a ladder while doing so.) He has never been to a therapist because, he says, he has always been his own.

The sympathetic women in his plays are drawn from his mother, a fiction writer for women's magazines who was the daughter of an actor manager and a male impersonator in the music hall. The dreadful marriages that recur through his plays also echo his mother's life. His father, a musician with the London Symphony Orchestra, left the family home in Hampstead when Alan was five. His mother's second marriage to a bank manager was so fraught that she had to be rescued from it by her son just as he was leaving school. His own marriage lasted just long enough to produce two sons, but he did not remarry until last year. His wife is Heather Stoney, for decades his partner and personal assistant.

The most influential figure in Ayckbourn's life has been the man after whom the Scarborough is named, an anarchic director called Stephen Joseph. Joseph was an unflagging enthusiast for theatre-in-the-round, and the main stage in the new theatre in Scarborough is still in the round. But his passion did not spread far: only three theatres can house touring productions of Ayckbourn's plays that have originated in that Scarborough theatre. Everywhere else, including London, his work fits snugly behind a proscenium arch.

In Scarborough, his theatre suffers from an ungenerous Arts Council and local authority. Ayckbourn does not collect his salary as the director; he pays the wage of the casting director, and puts his own cash directly into the shows. He says he is depressed by the class attitude to the arts which asserts itself when he asks for more money from the council. "A lot of people come out of the woodwork. You know none of them has ever been to the theatre. It is about a perception of it. Why do people feel angry about something they've never seen?"

On the other hand, the Stephen Joseph is a theatre that regularly performs his unique volume of work. I asked him to imagine the life of an unsuccessful playwright: "Torture," he replied. "Like an out-of-form batsman, you've got to play through your rough patches." For most writers, rough patches mean that no one puts on their plays at all.

Ayckbourn is confident that theatre will stage a comeback. "Because most of us are sitting in front of screens each day, there is less and less need for us to meet. But people want to be among people. We'll need to find places to meet and talk. Restaurants are so popular now, and I think it's also happening in the theatre."

The two new plays, one called House, the other called Garden, open on 7 June in Scarborough. One is set in a country house and played behind a conventional proscenium. The other, in the round, is in a garden where a fete is under way. With typical ingenuity, Ayckbourn moves characters from one play to another. He claims the sets have been designed so that an averagely fit actor can move from one play to another in 15 seconds. The actors themselves have their doubts.

Ayckbourn's fete spills out of the theatre into the foyer, where the audience will be able to purchase home-made marmalade (the theatre kitchen is already at work), and play Tombola. "It's a suicidal project," he says. "That's what I like about it."