Brits Off Broadway: Ayckbourn takes Manhattan

As th playwright himself says, in New York the knives are very long indeed. So the plaudits of the city's top critics can be seen as a triumph for a playwright who rarely ventures south of Scarborough. By Louise Jury
Click to follow

Word was that the Hollywood legend Lauren Bacall joined the long queue for returns. Kevin Bacon, star of Mystic River, Sleepers and Apollo 13, was one of those who definitely got a seat. When Alan Ayckbourn, one of Britain's most prolific playwrights, was invited to take his 67th work, Private Fears in Public Places, from the theatre he runs in Scarborough to New York, the show proved the talk of the town.

The month-long run in a small new venue in the Upper East Side last summer was part of a festival called Brits Off Broadway organised by a wealthy American stage-lover, Elysabeth Kleinhans, who five years ago set up her own purpose-built theatre complex called 59e59. More people failed to get in to see the show than managed to secure a ticket, Ayckbourn chuckles now. "Seats were at a premium. The little box office wasn't used to the lines around the block," he said.

Critics raved. The New York Observer critic said it was the finest British acting and the best ensemble - of any nationality - in town. "The unstarry, unknown cast of the Ayckbourn - who also directs - achieves a quiet miracle." The New York Times proclaimed it: "The jewel in the crown of the Brits Off Broadway Festival."

And the memory has lingered. When the critics came to review the highlights of 2005 this Christmas and New Year, Private Fears in Public Places was repeatedly acclaimed as one of the top theatrical events of the year.

The Wall Street Journal named it the best ensemble and Howard Kissel in the New York Daily News and Michael Sommers in the New Jersey Star-Ledger placed it in their top tens.

Richard Zoglin, of Time magazine, who also listed the Broadway production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Woman in White and the National Theatre's transfer (with an American cast) of The Pillowman, placed it at the top of his choices. "Ayckbourn, the great British playwright who doesn't get enough respect in America, brought over his own Scarborough troupe to present the US premiere of his chamber piece about the interconnections among six lonely London souls," Zoglin said. "Ayckbourn's delicate, understated direction showed, once again, that laughs are the least important thing in his vision of the sad comedy of ordinary lives."

At the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, they are understandably thrilled. And Ayckbourn himself, currently in London rehearsing the regional tour of his 69th play, Improbable Fiction, is happy to receive the validation of a bunch of critics whose negative reviews can be killers.

"Obviously I'm chuffed," he said yesterday. "It was a sort of vindication, like a life's work unwasted. You slog away doing what you hope is good work up in the North-east but you never really know. But to be put up against that level of competition, in that sort of cauldron of critical mayhem which I have experienced over time ... In New York the knives are very long indeed when they're long. If you've got a failure in New York, try to get the first plane out."

In a scene that could have come from straight from a corny Broadway musical, the cast was even recognised by the hotdog seller at the corner of the street and given free hotdogs, Ayckbourn recalls. "One of the girls came out of a show and said, 'I'm hungry, I'm getting a hotdog'. And the vendor said, 'It's the lady from the theatre,' and gave her free ones."

For the 66-year-old playwright, the experience was just right. He gave a master class and a lecture before the show began. The small-scale theatre was the "perfect" size for an intimate work such as Private Fears in Public Places. And he was particularly thrilled for his company of six actors, Melanie Gutteridge, Paul Kemp, Alexandra Mathie, Adrian McLoughlin, Sarah Moyle and Paul Thornley, who can scarcely expect to see their reviews in New York bettered.

Yet the decision to go had been a gamble. "I had to persuade the board to put up the money," Ayckbourn said. "We calculated that if we did 58 per cent [of a full house] at the box office we would break even and we thought it was too good an offer to miss." In the event, they did far better, in what the theatre has admitted was a financial as well as a critical success.

Ayckbourn added: "I wasn't prepared for anything like the response. I left after the very first performance. I thought it was quite low-key, just a small regional theatre coming in." Now, he is hopeful of returning. "I hope we'll go back, not next year, that's too soon, but perhaps the year after."

The triumph was not, of course, Ayckbourn's first in the Big Apple. Almost as soon as he had enjoyed his first West End hit in 1967, his work was being seen across the Atlantic. The first was How the Other Half Loves which opened in America in 1971, starring Phil Silvers of Sergeant Bilko fame. Absurd Person Singular, Absent Friends and The Norman Conquests all followed to New York after opening in Scarborough and London. Eric Thompson, creator of The Magic Roundabout stories and father of Emma, often directed.

In the 1980s, memorable productions included Woman in Mind with Stockard Channing, and the Manhattan Theatre Club, among other companies, has kept the Ayckbourn flag flying in recent years with varying degrees of success.

Yet Ayckbourn maintains that just as he may be even more popular in the British regions than in London, it is not in New York that his natural fan base in America resides but in the regional repertories and amateur companies. And despite his success in the summer, he still has reservations about the way theatre is going, both in America and the UK.

In the wake of the rave reviews, major US producers suggested a new production of Private Fears in Public Places with an American cast. (American Equity would have vetoed a longer or higher-profile stay for the Scarborough company.) But the play is small-scale and even the set was mainly from Ikea. The show was not financially viable off Broadway but to go on Broadway itself required scaling up to a 1,200-seater venue, said the producers. An Ikea set would not have been acceptable. Ayckbourn feared his play would be lost in such a theatre and gave up on the idea.

For similar reasons, his work has not been seen in the heart of London's theatreland for five years, since the National Theatre presented his twin plays, House and Garden.

"The expenses are very high in London and as a result there's a tremendous pressure on the straight play to be mainly done with big stars," he said. "I'm not blanketly against big stars. I'm happy to work with them when they're right for the part. But the problem for me is they put a huge stress on the play, a strange bias because when X, the famous so-and-so, comes on, everyone sits forward and thinks this must be important."

Ayckbourn is also in the fortunate (though heavily responsible) position of having his own theatre in which to present his own work, which makes a difference. And he has never been tempted to do film screenplays as his fellow playwrights Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard have.

Yet he has wondered sometimes whether his work, and that of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, should get more attention in London. "If we all came from Stuttgart, we'd be all right. People love it when you're foreign. Unfortunately, we come from Scarborough," he said.

"I do have a slight chip about the fact that when people do the 20 best things to see over Christmas, nothing really moves much further [north] than Manchester or maybe Leeds - 88 per cent of it is London-based. I think our Christmas show [The Champion of Paribanou by Ayckbourn himself] is pretty good but nobody [among the critics] has really been to see it. That's fine but at the back of your mind, you think it would be nice. If you give up the cash incentive for writing, then the kudos incentive is much higher."

Yet he concedes it is his own decision not to go into the West End. By sending his own company out on tour in his plays, they generate much-needed revenue for the Stephen Joseph Theatre. And he also maintains quality control over the work.

"I may just be terribly possessive. Sometimes my plays haven't been done awfully well. If a show of mine is going to nosedive, I'll be there in the cockpit and totally responsible for the crash, saying, 'Sorry, everybody, it's my error.' When you see a play that seemed rather air-worthy spiralling out of control, you wonder, 'What did they do?'"

There was certainly nothing of a nosedive about Private Fears in Public Places in New York. Elysabeth Kleinhans said they were "just thrilled" with how the play was received at 59e59, which itself is an extraordinary not-for-profit venture in a city where the commercial producer is king. She said yesterday: "The Stephen Joseph Theatre had never been to New York. Most of [Ayckbourn's] shows that have been done here have been Americanised in some way or another. So I think he realised it was an opportunity to show an American audience what his work is really about. The minute the review in the [New York] Times came out, when the box office opened, there were lines out the door. People loved it. It's a phenomenal play, a poignant play. I'm very hopeful of working with Sir Alan again."

A knight in the theatre

Sir Alan Ayckbourn is one of Britain's most prolific playwrights with more than 60 works - for both adults and children - to his name. Born in London in 1939, he has worked in theatre all his life, initially backstage in roles such as stage manager and lighting technician, before becoming an actor.

He was encouraged to write and then direct by Stephen Joseph who ran a theatre in Scarborough. Now the Stephen Joseph Theatre, it has been run by Ayckbourn since 1971. Nearly all of Ayckbourn's plays have been premiered there.

More than 30 have been produced in the West End, or by the Royal Shakespeare Company or the National Theatre, since his first hit, Relatively Speaking, opened at the Duke of York's Theatre, London, in 1967.

He is also an established director, not only of his own work, but of that of other playwrights, including an award-winning production of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge starring Michael Gambon in 1986. Other work includes directing the American premiere of the musical By Jeeves which he wrote with Andrew Lloyd Webber.

He has been the Cameron Mackintosh Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University and holds a clutch of honorary degrees. In 1997, he was knighted for his services to theatre.