Could it be that Sir Alan Ayckbourn, who has made his name chronicling and dramatising the social mores and human foibles of contemporary Britain, has fallen prey to the lure of celebrity culture? His atest, and 66th play, Drowning on Dry Land, takes obsession with fame as its subject matter. It opened at Ayckbourn's artistic home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, last year. A restaged version will tour six regional venues, beginning at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, on 19 January.
The play centres on the rise and fall of Charlie Conrad, a character Ayckbourn describes as "the ultimate modern celebrity, in that he has never actually managed to do anything. I was partly amused, partly fascinated by the way so many people seem to be scrambling to become celebrities based on very little ability".
He was partly inspired by an incident captured in Piers Morgan's 2003 television documentary The Importance of Being Famous, in which a young girl jumped up and down in a field in front of a camera for several minutes before asking: "Am I famous yet?" Her words led Ayckbourn to realise the unexceptional nature of today's fame.
The play combines Ayckbourn's trademark wry comic outlook with a warning of the darker trappings of fame. It is not only Charlie, the talentless star who comes under fire, but those people who surround him - the agents, and PR and media people who promote him and eventually destroy him. "The worst thing that can happen to you is to believe your own publicity and what people (particularly your press agent) say about you," Ayckbourn says. "One must resist because that way madness lies."
Ayckbourn has moved away from his traditional settings of a garden or a living room and has set the play in a Victorian folly located in the grounds of Charlie's Home Counties family mansion. The folly underlines the idea that in Charlie's world, all is surface and nothing is quite what it seems.
Unlike the protagonist of his play, Ayckbourn has enjoyed enduring success in his chosen profession. But, even after 66 plays, the process of inspiration does not get any easier. "The first spark that sets everything off is the only thing that you can't control," he says. "Every time I finish a play, I sit there feeling empty like a large cupboard that's just been cleaned out and hopefully wait for a new idea to arrive. I never know whether there is another play in me."
Ayckbourn is aware of the contemporary appeal of his new play and has enjoyed the positive audience reaction so far. "People have been sitting there quietly steaming in their armchairs about the hype that has gone on," he says. "There's a whole list of 'celebrities' and you have to search in vain for what they have actually done. It's good fun until it runs into real talent." In Ayckbourn, reality television stars and It-girls may have finally met their match.
'Drowning on Dry Land', Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford (01483 440000) 19 January to 29 January, then touring to 5 March