STAYING PUT IN SCARBORO' FAIR

Britain's most successful living playwright is building a new theatre - but he's doing it in a small seaside town
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The Independent Culture
IMAGINE. Each summer at Frinton-on-Sea Harold Pinter turns out something new for the sunburnt holiday-makers. On Saturday mornings in Sheringham Tom Stoppard chats to the kids' playgroup. On wet evenings in Sidmouth David Hare hangs round the foyer to greet members of the Rotary Club. Yes, the careers of our leading playwrights might have been very different if they had been artistic directors of small theatres in seaside towns.

But Alan Ayckbourn is just that. He has lived and worked in a seaside town for nearly 40 years. Two early plays were staged at Stoke-on-Trent and another, A Small Family Business (1987), was first shown at the National. The rest of them - from Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests in the early Seventies, through Way Upstream and Man of the Moment in the Eighties, to this year's A Word From Our Sponsor - were all premiered in Scarborough. If you're counting (and we are) Ayckbourn is doubly in his fifties: he celebrates his 57th birthday next April, and his next full-length play is his 50th.

When you see the territories outside Scarborough that apply to his agents for performing rights - North and South America, Africa, Australia, the Middle East, South East Asia - you get some idea of the surreal productions you will have missed. Absurd Person Singular (1972) has three couples celebrating three consecutive Christmas Eves. You can see these English suburban rituals re-enacted in Romania, Venezuela, Peru, Japan or Iceland. You can hear Ayckbourn spoken, if you have the airmiles, in more than 30 languages. You could say the sun never sets, or the houselights never come up, on Alan Ayckbourn.

And who gets to see it all first? The 50,000 inhabitants of a harbour town with two bays, several amusement arcades, an Odeon that shut in 1988, and a Tory MP (though no longer a Tory council). It's a place that caters for the elderly. There are hotels in Scarborough which advertise as their main feature "Lifts to all Floors". A woman in a Scarborough pub told me: "People come here to die." Britain's most successful living playwright came here when he was 18.

THE TIPS of his fingers prod away at his cheekbones. His face is bonier, more alert, than his figure, which otherwise suggests a friendly, shambling presence, an air that is further enhanced - or, you might say, undermined - by baggy track suit, T-shirt and Nike trainers. When Ayckbourn talks, there's no eye contact. It's as if he's on a radio phone-in, taking a question from a caller. He tells you what some people say, then tells you what other people say. It is obvious that he must be a playwright.

"The extraordinary thing about being a stage playwright is that you have no idea what people are talking about when they say they've seen a play of yours." His hard hat is on the table and an electric saw whirrs away behind the wall. Ayckbourn is in what will be a production room in his next theatre. He raises his voice above the din. "If somebody says: 'I saw your play in Ipswich and I didn't like it,' you say, 'Oh, that's a pity.' But I have no criteria with which to defend it. I have no idea what the director decided to do with it. He may have played it all on step- ladders in the semi-dark."

But Ayckbourn does have ideas about the first production of a new play of his, because he always directs it himself at his own theatre. The present theatre is on the middle floor of a former grammar school. Walking round backstage is like turning the pages of a children's book. Every room is crammed with detail: racks of costumes, rows of plugs and leads, stacks of hats and shoes, and shelves and shelves of props. People call it his "toy theatre" and his "train set". Ayckbourn calls it "a familiar friend".

Sadly, the friends are parting. You have to follow the plot carefully, but the main storyline is that Ayckbourn has got the push from the old grammar school, where he rented his space on a two-year lease. The landlords used to be Yorkshire County Council, and they sound sympathetic types, the sort you might see in an Ayckbourn play in old corduroys. The new landlords are Yorkshire Coast College, and their logo says "Quality Counts". Ayckbourn describes them as "ambitious, a very go-ahead outfit". This conjures up another Ayckbourn type: the stocky man in a shiny double- breasted suit, legs apart, jingling his loose change.

It's one to savour, this. Ayckbourn is having to move out of his theatre to make way for a performing-arts course. The Yorkshire Coast College (where, of course, "Quality Counts") have the floors above and below and want the one in between. "They're looking to take over our floor," says Ayckbourn. "That's what they want, and they want it fairly soon. I don't think they would necessarily evict us on our ear, but the fact is there is pressure there to move when we can." And when he's gone, they want to name his old theatre after him. The "Alan Ayckbourn'', where Ayckbourn ain't.

WHERE HE will be is a few hundred yards up the road. Walk out of the railway station, and across the road you'll see a 1930s exterior: black tiles, neon lights and overhanging canopy. This is the old Odeon, which is being converted for pounds 5.1 million. It will reopen next spring as Ayckbourn's new theatre, or, more exactly, two theatres: one small, the other smaller.

Ayckbourn shows me round. The foyer is lovingly restored in the original Art Deco style: layered architraves seamlessly join the skirting boards; the salmon-pink walls have a textured finish; there's a cherrywood bar, chrome handrails and period lamps.

Then we pass by the glass-roofed atrium in the middle and see huge steel girders and concrete blocks. This section is only half-built. Ayckbourn's thinking is to finish the foyer before moving onto the main auditorium. If they complete the auditorium first, he reasons, people might lose interest in raising money for the foyer. Today you can see a gaping lift-shaft that plunges down into the boulder clay and a pool of water. Next year you will see new plays. "We were formed by an idiot," says Ayckbourn, "who believed that new work was important and that this sort of theatre was important."

The idiot was Stephen Joseph, son of publisher Michael Joseph and the actress Hermione Gingold. The theatre in question was theatre-in-the- round, which Joseph pioneered - despite damning attacks, from Kenneth Tynan among others ("People tend to forget that," says Ayckbourn). The first Theatre in the Round in Scarborough was on the first floor of the town's library. This was where Ayckbourn made his debut as a playwright in 1959.

Ayckbourn's father had been leader of the London Symphony Orchestra, his mother was an energetic writer of magazine stories; they separated when he was five. Child psychologists might like to toy with the number of times Ayckbourn has tried (and largely failed) to combine music and words. He has the distinction of collaborating with Andrew Lloyd Webber on the latter's only musical flop, Jeeves, an adaptation of P G Wodehouse.

Ayckbourn grew up in Staines, Middlesex, was sent to a public school, Haileybury, and left with two A levels - English and History. His first job was as an acting assistant stage-manager with Donald Wolfit's company. The next year he got a job at Scarborough. When Ayckbourn complained about his dreary role in John Van Druten's Bell, Book and Candle, Stephen Joseph, the director, told him that if he wanted to be in something good, he should write it himself.

"The only way I survived," says Ayckbourn, "was Stephen throwing me into the only theatre he had, which was the main house, with the underlying threat that if the play didn't work we'd probably all be on the street by the end of the run. We relied heavily on box office."

Ayckbourn did survive, and he has stayed in Scarborough ever since. He now lives in a large Georgian vicarage with his partner, Heather Stoney, who is also his personal assistant. When he walks to work along the beach people leave him alone. Many, in fact, don't recognise him. He isn't on the telly, and if he's so good, the thinking goes, what's he doing up here? One answer is that his life is as neatly ordered as The Norman Conquests - his trilogy where exactly the same events happen over the same weekend, except one play takes place in the dining room, one in the living room and one in the garden.

When Ayckbourn set up an appeal for his new theatre he had no idea when he would move out of the present one. Now he knows it will be next year. The reason he can be so sure is the National Lottery. Three weeks ago, when the Saturday-night television lottery-draw was broadcast from Scarborough, one of the big winners emerged as . . . Scarborough. The Arts Council gave the theatre's Development Trust pounds 1.48 million. That money has led to a grant of pounds 495,000 from the European Union. Now they only need another pounds 300,000. Of the other major donors, Charles "Mac" McCarthy, chairman of the theatre's trust, has given pounds 240,000 towards the 165-seat studio theatre. It will be called the McCarthy. Ayckbourn has given pounds 416,000 of his own money for the 400-seat main auditorium. It will be called the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round. This will be the venue for the premiere of his 50th play, as yet unwritten.

When Ayckbourn writes a new play it is performed by jobbing actors in front of several hundred people. The audience sit on four sides and no- one is more than six rows from the front. Watch what happens then. His plays go on to receive prominent productions in the West End or on Broadway with television names performing in proscenium theatres to audiences of 1,200 who are 30, 40 or 50 feet away. Don't people see something very different?

"Quite often. Yes."

His most recent West End play, Time of My Life (1993), was set in a restaurant. Ayckbourn directed the West End production and five of the seven members of the cast were in the original Scarborough production. The new recruits were Anton Rogers and Gwen Taylor. Still, Ayckbourn says, "the play lost enormously from going into the pross [proscenium stage]. The idea was that you, the audience, were close enough to be sitting in the same restaurant as these people. You were almost eavesdropping on the tables. Which was great. Put it in a pross and you've suddenly got these strange sightline problems, and tables, and people behind them. It was a mistake to do it. Really a mistake."

Theatre-in-the-round encourages bold technical feats: Woman in Mind (1985) overlaps a real family and a fantasy family. Intimate Exchanges (1982) has 16 possible plot variations. Writing for theatre-in-the-round determines how he writes a play, he says.

"It's more to do with scale than actual shape. To put it crudely, theatre- in-the-round is a people medium. It suits human drama. It's not awfully good at polemical drama, great statements. What you tend to do is get involved very quickly with the individuals. A play like Just Between Ourselves, which is a tiny, tiny fragment of eyebrow-raising human drama, is very hard to do in a pross. Directly you start to bang it out, the fabric goes on it, it tears."

Are you then a West End playwright?

"I would hate to be ungrateful, and I've had producers like Michael Codron who've served me terribly well, and some of them - plays like Man of the Moment - have worked very well. But I'm beginning to look at each play on its merits and ask, 'Is this a West End show?' "

Is he naturally a theatre-in-the-round playwright then? "I can't really work out if I wrote like that and found theatre-in-the-round, and therefore it suited me fine, or whether I was working in theatre-in-the-round and started writing like that."

It takes Ayckbourn two weeks to write a play and, in a busy year - 1993, for instance - he writes three. That still leaves more than 40 weeks for the day job - running a theatre, doing all the chores. We think of Ayckbourn as a playwright but most of the time he is just another artistic director of a regional theatre, worrying about sponsorship, youth groups and new plays by new writers. Each year he has eight slots for plays. "One of those goes to a Christmas show, one of those goes to my new one, that makes six; we then do something vaguely classical, then you're down to about five."

Ayckbourn has grown frustrated at how few new plays by other people he has been able to put on in Scarborough each year in his current premises; the main problem has been the local fire officer, who has refused him permission to put on a play in his little studio theatre while there is a performance running in the main house. "We're sitting on a lid of writers that we can't use." Any survey of new writing is incomplete that fails to include a chapter on the impact of fire regulations.

Many theatres stick new plays in the studios. Ayckbourn follows Stephen Joseph's philosophy and does the reverse. "If you say to an author, 'This is our studio theatre. We like it when people come, but we're not really worried if they don't. You don't have to fill it. Don't worry . . . ' I don't see the point in that. If they can't address anybody with what they're saying, then forget it."

Ayckbourn does old plays in the round too, including Shakespeare: not ones with large battle scenes, but, smaller, domestic ones, like Othello, which Ayckbourn describes, in terms that might surprise F R Leavis, as "just about blokes talking, really, and getting angry with each other in a very small space".

When he's discussing theatre-in-the-round, Ayckbourn warms not just to his theme, but to his life's work. "When you get a good house, it takes on a vibrant personality. I swear to God, it's still vibrating after the audience has gone. You go into the auditorium, and it's hot and slightly steamy, and you get that awful, no, not awful, that wonderful sense that something emotional has occurred, something satisfyingly emotional, even if it's a jolly good cry."

! 'A Word From Our Sponsor' (transfer from Scarborough): Chichester Minerva Theatre, 0124 378 1312, previews from Mon, opens Fri.

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