Alan Ayckbourn's pied-a-terre, in a swankily converted Victorian wharf in Wapping, could be a set from one of his own plays. The low ceiling is impaled by girders thrusting through the whole building, there's a small open kitchen off the plushly neutral sitting-room, and the Thames flows just under the French windows. The trio of failed suicides in Absurd Person Singular could have ended it all right here by jumping off their creator's balcony.
The brown-brick walls are lined with Evening Standard Drama Awards, each with a comical set of conical breasts. There are seven in all, dating back to 1973. One stops the office door. Last month they were joined by a similarly endowed Lloyds Playwright of the Year Award, which Ayckbourn won for Things We Do for Love. It is his 52nd play, premiered last year as usual in Scarborough, where he is approaching 30 years as artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre. It opens this week in the West End, where for a while Ayckbourn's plays have lacked the impact they once had. The omens are good. This is only the second occasion in 52 that Ayckbourn has been able to put a house with storeys on-stage. The other was A Small Family Business, at the Olivier Theatre, which took over pounds lm in rep 10 years ago.
Things We Do for Love is set in three converted flats, but only the bottom half of the top flat and the top half of the bottom flat are visible. Most of the action takes place on the first floor, where Barbara, a single woman in her early 40s, lives an apparently contented life uncluttered by sex. Her helpful downstairs neighbour, Gilbert, is a widower who, it turns out, is so obsessed with her that he's painting a pornographic portrait on his ceiling. Into the upstairs flat move Nikki, Barbara's doting best friend from school, and Hamish, the latest unsuitable man in her life. When Barbara and Hamish meet, it's hate at first sight, but by the end of Act One they're in the upstairs flat, shucking off their clothes and, tantalisingly out of the audience's sightlines, making frenetic love on the bed.
Believe it or not, the inspiration for this scene comes from Clint Eastwood's encounter in In the Line of Fire with a fellow CIA agent (female). "It's shot from floor level," says Ayckbourn. "They're taking off all this body armour and guns and handcuffs and all you see is this stuff showering on the floor until you hear, 'Beep beep beep... yeah, yeah, we'll be in in 10 minutes. Oh, Christ, we gotta put all this on again.' It's a wonderful sex scene and I thought I'd love to shoot a stage play from the feet."
Ayckbourn has written plays that make use of the horizontal triptych (see panel), but the three-tier stack is new. Ever since the theatre moved to bigger premises in 1995, multi-level designs have been ungainly on the Stephen Joseph's in-the-round main stage. So this time he mounted it in the McCarthy, the theatre's smaller stage. "I was very worried it would become known as our 'studio', a space where you put on plays for brownie points that nobody wants to see. So I wanted to put my money where my mouth was."
The structural trickery stems from "a desire to make it more interesting". First, though, comes the theme, in this case a surprisingly unfamiliar one for Ayckbourn and also a very modish one: sex and the single girl. "I wanted to write about the destructive effects of love. Barbara believes she has escaped the disease. She has got all the advantages: you sometimes see heavily married people look at single people with a glimmer of envy. It also has its negative sides: you're incredibly lonely. I also wanted to look at the way you can suddenly no longer be honourable. Barbara honestly believes that you don't bugger up your best friend's life. The scene where they tell Nikki is the nearest thing to Hansel and Gretel, with the parents saying, 'We're going to take you into the woods and dump you.'"
The play was written, as usual, in a blizzard of speed: three weeks flat. When Michael Winner wanted to film A Chorus of Disapproval, he pinned Ayckbourn down in this very flat and refused to leave without a screenplay. "I went into the study and he sat here smoking cigars and I wrote the film script in eight hours and I gave it to him at the end of the day and said, 'Now fuck off.'"
The production line has now spewed forth play No 53, called Comic Potential, which will be premiered this spring. It's set in the future in a low-budget TV station which makes daytime soaps using androids as actors. A young writer turns up who wants to work in an outmoded, non-PC genre called "comedy". One of the female robots, who starts corpsing at his lines, diagnoses her laughter as a "fault". "It's really about the nature of humour," says Ayckbourn. "Are comedians sick people? I think they have things that, if you're actually being very strict, you'd probably get rid of - tiny lesions in the brain which cause us to sometimes think, how the hell did they think of that?"
For all his formal originality, Ayckbourn doesn't see himself in that category, but there is clearly a fecundity there that allows the ideas to spill out so reliably. This year he has four more plays to write: a 50-minute piece for the BT National Connections, his biannual children's play for Scarborough, his next play for adults and, ending a long dissociation from the National, an adaptation of Ostrovsky's The Forest for Trevor Nunn. "The trouble is, I'm not quite sure how good an adapter I am. I tend to go off in my own world. I think what they're going to get is a play called The Wood for the Trees."
I ask him why he hasn't had one of his own plays on at the National since A Small Family Business. It certainly looks as if the now-departed Richard Eyre thought less highly of him than had his predecessor, Peter Hall. "Richard and I met and he said, 'I'd very much like you to write children's shows.' And I said, 'Sure, fine, but can I write some adult ones?' I sent him two and they didn't like them. One thing, I suppose, is that I said quite early on, 'I don't really want to write for the Cottesloe. It seems to me a very good space for younger, newer dramatists, but I work in that all my life - the one that really interests me is the Olivier.'"
Things We Do for Love is an Olivier-sized play which, like A Small Family Business, culminates in an act of prolonged violence triggered by a brilliant bit of comic business. A German director once phoned Ayckbourn to find out how many times the murder victim should be smashed over the head in A Small Family Business to make it unfunny. "I said, 'Oddly enough, seven.' He said, 'Really? Ve are doing only three.' I said, 'Oh, no, that's not convincing. Seven. They laugh on one, two and three; they're giggling at four; five they're beginning to think, fuck, what's going on? Six: oh, no!' I thought, what a stupid question, and then I thought, it's not a stupid question. It was my instinct when I was directing it to say, 'Keep going, keep going.'"
Things We Do for Love: from Tues, Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Ave, London W1 (0171-494 5065)
THE HOUSES THAT AYCKBOURN BUILT
How the Other Half Loves (1969): cuts between two dinner parties that take place on consecutive days but at which the guests are the same.
Bedroom Farce (1975): the action takes place in a triptych of bedrooms set alongside one another.
The Norman Conquests (1973): a trilogy of plays in which the same set of events are seen from three different perspectives.
Sisterly Feelings (1979): a toss of a coin decides which of the play's two alternative middle sections the audience gets to see.
Taking Steps (1979): the action takes place on three floors of a house, set side by side.
Way Upstream (1981): set on a river with, depending where and which night you saw it, a pool full of real water and real rain.
Intimate Exchanges (1982): a play with 16 possible endings.
A Small Family Business (1987): a cross- section of an entire house stands on-stage.
Communicating Doors (1994): the characters go back in time through the eponymous hotel bedroom doors.
Things We Do for Love (1997): the action takes place in three flats set on top of each other, but only the top half of the bottom flat and the bottom half of the top flat are visible.