Exit, the king: Is Alan Ayckbourn set for one glorious final act?

He has fallen out of fashion in the West End, suffered a stroke and entered his last season in charge at Scarborough theatre. But could Britain's most prolific playwright, Alan Ayckbourn, enjoy a last hurrah?

As he tells it, beneath the imposing dome of his balding pate, Sir Alan Ayckbourn's head is a strange, dimly lit creative cavern. "When you dream up a play," he says, "it starts to come slowly, like water dripping in a cave. The thing grows like that, drip by drip, on its own. After a while, you go in there and bring one out. Occasionally it'll disappear on you, but you notice another one. There's usually two or three in there at a time."

To date, there have in fact been 72, excavated, written up, astonishingly, in just a week or two, and directed by Ayckbourn at his spiritual home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, where he first arrived as a stage manager and aspiring actor in 1957. With two more plays than he currently has years, Ayckbourn is, by a thoroughly improbable margin, the most prolific professional playwright in England. More than half of his plays have transferred to London's West End, which also makes him the most successful of his generation or, according to some, of any generation, including Shakespeare in his own lifetime.

His vast, gleaming town house, actually three town houses knocked into one, reflects his trade. His grandchildren's playroom has been converted into a rehearsal space. A self-contained flat below stairs is routinely rented out to company members. But it's not the walls of bookshelves, overflowing from ceiling to polished oak floor – the only untidy corner of an otherwise supremely well-oiled house – that strike you first; it's the enormous, perfectly round table. "We had it made so we could fit a full cast round it at dinner," Ayckbourn says of this neat reflection of both his dedication to theatre in the round and his long-cherished ensemble philosophy.

Sitting in his customary armchair, overlooking the antiquely English Scarborough bay – with its £2 donkey rides, its mêlée of bucket-and-spade and fish-and-chip shops, a beleaguered bingo MC calling out lucky numbers through a crackling loudspeaker, Ayckbourn is in reflective humour. Due to a stroke he suffered two years ago, the coming season will be his last as artistic director of the theatre he inherited nearly 40 years ago.

"When one does interviews like this," he says, "you tend to make it sound as though everything you've done was a thoroughly brilliant decision." The truth, he says, is that he first went into the theatre primarily as a way of meeting girls. He relocated to Scarborough from his native Hampstead because he'd heard there was a job going, and wrote his first play at the behest of his mentor, the theatrical pioneer Stephen Joseph, because they needed cash from the Arts Council in 1959. "They gave us £300, more than I'd ever seen in one place before," Ayckbourn recalls. "I thought, this is money for old rope." But he had the public entranced. By 1975, the "Molière of the middle classes" had five plays running simultaneously in the West End.

Yet the parochialism of his subject matter, the touch of old-fashioned farce about his plays, so beloved by his public, has increasingly exiled him from the adulation of the cognoscenti. In 1986, Sir Peter Hall invited him to form his own company at the National Theatre, hailing him as one of the most perceptive playwrights of the Thatcher era. Hall's successor, Richard Eyre, was less welcoming, commissioning only children's Christmas shows. The incumbent, Nicholas Hytner, has yet to issue an invitation at all.

He'll tell you that he's now immune to criticism, having had too much and then too little recognition. "The Norman Conquests", his 1973 trilogy (Table Manners, Living Together and Round and Round the Garden) depicting the same series of sexually charged misadventures from three different settings in a suburban house, which Kevin Spacey is to revive at the Old Vic next month, "everybody went completely bananas about. 'The best trilogy since Aeschylus'? I mean, come on." But when pushed, he betrays a hint of pique at the turn of fortune and fashion's wheel – does he feel underappreciated in the ranks of the knighted playwrights Stoppard, Pinter and Hare? "I was the first one to get it," he sniffs, "so I suppose somebody loved me. I've become increasingly isolated up here. Deliberately so."

Ayckbourn maintains that he wrote the kind of play he wanted to see, characterised by cunning structural ingenuity, a flagrant theatricality and a keen comic eye on the rotten state of Middle England and its marriages. They are peopled by thwarted, trapped women and bedevilled by a slew of malfunctioning household objects. Woman in Mind, which he's currently reviving with the acclaimed stage actress Janie Dee for his final season, is typical Ayckbourn fare. In it, Dee's character, Susan, knocks herself out on a garden rake and the play, seen entirely through her eyes, charts her retreat from her drab, suburban reality into the company of a champagne-swigging, tennis-playing ' family that she hallucinates. "It's like opening an old scrapbook," Ayckbourn says of revisiting his 1985 hit. "I no longer know the man who wrote it, so I'm reliant on the actors' point of view. With the new plays you're much more in control."

Control appears to be Ayckbourn's keyword. When asked whether he has any regrets about giving up his first ambition to act, he replies, "No, no. As a director, at least you're in control of the thing." It's difficult to imagine him graciously relinquishing the reins of his artistic directorship to Chris Monks in January. "We've already had a chat," he says, "and Chris isn't some young Turk, chasing change. He's not going to come along saying – 'Right, now we're going to do "devised theatre" in plastic bags. Enough of that middle-class crap.'"

His unrivalled love of structure, too, seems closely wedded to his need for control. Intimate Exchanges, which opened in 1982, contains 16 possible plot variations, based on seemingly inconsequential decisions made by the characters; the mind-boggling House & Garden (1999) saw the same ensemble of actors perform two plays simultaneously, every exit from one stage prefiguring an entrance to the other. "Perhaps I am overly aware of how important structure is to a play," he says. "That's why I hate so much devised theatre. So much of it is just so badly structured."

He imposed a moratorium on his work appearing in the West End when his grip over his material began to weaken. London producers refused to stage all three plays of his "Damsels in Distress" trilogy in sequence in 2002. Ayckbourn withdrew the rights, and loudly decried the death of the straight play and the celebrity-riddled decay of the West End in general. "Musicals, musicals, musicals," he says, or plays stuffed with "film actors who can't project past the third row". He relented last year, when Alan Strachan mounted a stellar production of his 1972 classic Absurd Person Singular, saying, "They're welcome to the revivals." Any new shows, on the other hand, he will still only consider staging himself in Scarborough.

As such, his stroke, the effects of which linger in a stiffness in his left side and the occasional catch in his plummy, declarative voice, must have been devastating. "I went to the osteopath, I thought, a healthy man, and just couldn't get up again. [Ayckbourn suffered his stroke mid-appointment.] The first couple of weeks, lying there in the hospital, taking stock of my situation, I came round with the thought, 'My God. I'm playless.' I cannot imagine living without a play in me. Slowly, though, they started to arrive, and everything else, mobility and so on, came back quite quickly.

"But I thought the writing would be easier to get back to than the directing and in fact the opposite has been the case. I've found I'm like a plant in water when I'm out of a rehearsal room. I wilt. I start thinking I'm near death. I use the energy of a cast to swing round the sun, like a rocket uses gravity. The writing took longer and was much more difficult, oddly. You're on your own. I've spent as much time as possible since the stroke in a rehearsal room. Undoubtedly, the theatre is a family, and the rehearsal room is my real home. I'm happiest when I'm there."

Despite such statements, and what you might glean from his plays, Ayckbourn is in fact very happily married to the former actress Heather Stoney, with whom he's lived for 40 years, and has two sons from his first marriage. Of that relationship, with Christine Roland, Ayckbourn says: "Coming from public school, you never even saw a girl. I was so desperate to get married I proposed to anybody. I broke off one engagement [his second], and found myself in the pub the next night proposing to someone else. The ring wasn't even cold from the other finger. How could anyone allow an 18-year-old to endow their life away to someone, however nice? We just became completely different people. It's extraordinary. I get quite angry, thinking about it now." The couple separated seven years later, though they didn't divorce for another 30 years, when he married Stoney.

But Ayckbourn explains that his artistic voice was fully formed by the time he was 16. At which point, he already had a rich seam of pained class aspirations, thwarted ambitions and maladjusted marriages to mine. His father, the first violinist of the London Symphony Orchestra, left his mother when he was six, for the second violinist. His magazine journalist mother, Irene, who by all accounts nursed an unrepentant love of tall tales, booze and cigarettes, and who had no other children, married the local bank manager two years later, a deeply dysfunctional relationship that Ayckbourn eventually helped her escape. "After my mother left my stepfather, he wrote to me saying, incidentally, your mother was technically a bigamist."

Ayckbourn chuckles, recalling this discovery. "She was married to a man before she met my father, and didn't divorce him until 1948. I met him, once, when I was young. My mother and I were going down the Aldwych on a bus and this bloke in a beret came up and said 'Hello, 'Rene.' It was smiles all round. I said – who was that? She said, 'Oh, he was a writer, I was trying to write and he had this flat. So we got married.' The day after the wedding he didn't get up, and she had to go to work. After a few weeks she thought 'Bugger this' and left. These things come out of the woodwork, but I was never quite sure, because she was very eccentric, my mother, and a dreadful liar, whether it was true or not. Trevor was his name.

"I never really knew my father," he continues. "He died when I was 14, so he missed me. The only thing I remember distinctly is sitting up with him once, in Norfolk where he lived. I've never laughed with anybody else as I laughed with him."

Ayckbourn's creative cave, then, echoes with the voices of distant men and oppressed, ebullient women. "I'll carry on writing if I can," he says, with his sideways, secretive smile. "There are one or two ideas floating about in there. And I'll carry on directing, which I must. I'll keep trying. I have to."

'The Norman Conquests' trilogy is at the Old Vic, London SE1 (0870 060 6628, www.oldvictheatre.com), from 11 September to 20 December. 'Woman in Mind' is at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, Yorkshire (01723 370 541, www.sjt.uk.com) from 4 September to 4 October

The bard of the 'burbs: Ayckbourn's greatest hits

Relatively Speaking (1965)

Ayckbourn's seventh play and his first hit is a canny four-hander, exploding middle-class mores and introducing his favourite dramatic setting, a flat and suburban garden.

The Norman Conquests (1973)

A trilogy of plays that can be seen in any order, set in a suburban town house over one weekend. Kevin Spacey's production opens at The Old Vic in September.

Bedroom Farce (1975)

Often hailed his finest, four married couples air their inadequacies, desires and decidedly English inhibitions in four consecutive bedrooms.

Intimate Exchanges (1982)

Four scenes, set in and around a primary school, two performers and 16 possible endings depending on choices made by the characters.

A Chorus of Disapproval (1984)

A playful metadrama in which the unsuspecting Guy is roped in to perform in an am-dram production and becomes entangled with two married women.

House & Garden (1999)

Two plays on adjacent stages. One presents events as seen from the house, the other from the garden, every exit from one stage prefiguring the entrance to the other.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum