The Ayckbourn conquest

Alan Ayckbourn is a theatrical 'outsider', but a Tony Award for one of his best-loved plays has thrust Scarborough's greatest export back into the limelight

Arifa Akbar@arifa_akbar
Tuesday 16 July 2013 23:46

It was June 1973 and the young playwright, Alan Ayckbourn, watched the audience stream into the opening night of his new comic trilogy at the Library Theatre in Scarborough with a heavy heart.

Straight after the curtain came down on the premiere, Ayckbourn fled to walk the streets in the dark, anticipating gloomy reviews.

He could not have been more wrong. The trilogy in question was The Norman Conquests, focusing on the failed romances of an assistant librarian called Norman, and it garnered unanimously sensational reviews before being transferred to London a year later to a win a clutch of awards.

Years later, he would remember his misjudgement: "I was very depressed after the first night. I thought it just didn't work and I went for a long walk. The next day the papers all came out with these extraordinary reviews and all I could think was that there was nowhere to go from here except down!"

Now, more than 30 years later, after the trilogy was painstakingly revived by Kevin Spacey, the artistic director of the Old Vic who last year campaigned for private donations so he could reconfigure his auditorium into 'the round', Ayckbourn still appears to be on an upward trajectory.

The critical sensation of its first night in Scarborough in 1973 was repeated tenfold yesterday when it claimed a Tony Award for 'best revival of a play' in New York.

For Ayckbourn, this latest prize adds to a hefty collection of 32 theatre awards ranging from the French Moliere to two Oliviers.

He is one of the most prolific playwrights in British history, having written 72 plays with more than 40 staged at the National Theatre or the West End, and whose productions are believed to be the second most performed to William Shakespeare's work.

Ayckbourn recorded his latest success in a modest email exchange with the play's director, Matthew Warchus, from the distance of his beloved town of Scarborough, where he has spent much of professional life.

His latest victory is likely to force a reassessment of the talents of a playwright who, while being hugely popular, has sometimes been dismissed as light-weight. Spacey said he had wanted to stage the revival ever since he joined the Old Vic in 2003, after having seen the play performed in LA, aged just 13. He felt particular satisfaction after having spent two and a half years in discussions with Ayckbourn over staging the plays which the playwright considers his "jewels". (He had until then, witheld permission for a revival for 35 years).

"When I heard about the Tony Award, I partly felt Alan Ayckbourn had been given his due as a playwright. His reputation has suffered from the snobbery of others. Because he writes comedies, there is the incorrect assumption that he is not part of the same canon as Beckett or Chekhov or Mamet, writers to whom he is closer to in terms of the genius with which he weaves webs between his characters," said Spacey.

Warchus, who was in New York last night to collect the award, agreed Ayckbourn's writing could sometimes be misunderstood. He likened his savage subject matter of mental instability and domestic agony to that of Harold Pinter and Edward Albee, referring to him as the "Chekhov of our time."

"His plays deal repeatedly with humiliation and embarrassment. He is a domestic terrorist, a guerilla writer who has always been loved as an extremely gifted writer but what people can forget is how audacious and shocking he is. People are suspicious of prolific success, there seems to be the implication of triviality if you have success again and again," he said.

Another reason why he may have remained an outsider to the theatrical establishment could be his geographical distance from the metropolitan chattering classes of London after choosing Scarborough as his home. Ayckbourn was born and raised in a middle class, North London household in leafy Hampstead. His mother was a writer who published under the name, Mary James, while his father was an orchestral violinist. He left school at 17 and soon after began a temporary job at Scarborough Library Theatre, where much of his early theatre career played out, writing seminal comedies of the late 1960s and 70s, such as Bedroom Farce and Just Between Ourselves.

Warchus said so great was Ayckbourn's influence that it could be felt in television comedies such as The Royal Family and The Office.

"His work really thrives on a kind of naturalism that is a candid camera style of acting. His style has become a very contemporary comic style. It manages to be of this time," he said.

The Tonys Billy Elliot sweeps the board

*Best Musical: Billy Elliot

Billy Elliot won 10 Tony Awards, a record for a British musical. Beating favourite Next to Normal to grab the most coveted prize, the production co-written by Elton John prizes for almost every member of the London creative team: Best Direction of a Musical (Stephen Daldry), Choreography (Peter Darling), Orchestrations (Martin Koch – in a tie with the orchestrators of US musical Next to Normal), Scenic Design (Ian MacNeil), Lighting (Rick Fisher) and Sound (Paul Arditti). Elton John, who suggested the film be adapted for theatre, co-wrote the music.

*Best Play: God of Carnage

Rising to fame in 1995 with the London production of Art, Yasmina Reza has already won a Tony award for best new play in 1998. Now God of Carnage – a satirical play depicting the clash between two liberal, middle-class couples whose children get into a fight – has become one of the biggest hits of the Broadway season. It stars James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden, who won a best actress award. Director Matthew Warchus also picked up a gong.

*Best Original Music Score: Next to Normal

It tells the story of a mother who struggles with worsening bipolar disorder and the effect that her illness has on her family. Alice Ripley also won a Tony for her lead role, while the honours for best orchestration were shared with Billy Elliot.

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