Alan Ayckbourn (pictured), the UK’s most prolific playwright, will premiere his 71st and 72nd plays over the next six months, his last in charge of Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, where he’s been artistic director for the past 36 years (See News, 4 Jun 2007).

Ayckbourn’s farewell season will also include his own revival of his 1985 black comedy Woman in Mind, starring Janie Dee (See The Goss, 25 Apr 2006). In the new year, he hands over the reins to Royal Exchange associate director Chris Monks, who will programme the 2009/10 season.

First up this month, Ayckbourn’s 71st play, Life and Beth premieres on 22 July 2008 (previews from 17 July) and continues until 30 August. Liza Goddard stars as the recently widowed Beth, who’s worried about making it through her first Christmas alone. Though Beth’s family rally round, her alcoholic sister-in-law, accident-prone son and his truculent girlfriend – not to mention the local vicar and another uninvited guest – make it difficult to keep smiling.

Life and Beth is the final production in this summer’s Things That Go Bump season, which also includes revivals of Ayckbourn’s Snake in the Grass and Haunting Julia. All three plays concert “ghosts which lurk in the dark corners of all our minds”. They’re performed in rep by the same six-strong company. In addition to Goddard, the actors are Susie Black, Ruth Gibson, Ian Hogg, Adrian McLoughlin and Richard Stacey.

Janie Dee had arguably the biggest hit of her career with her 1999 performance as an android in Ayckbourn’s Comic Potential, which earned her Best Actress trophies at the Evening Standard, Critics’ Circle and Laurence Olivier Awards. That production, which Ayckbourn also directed, opened first at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough before transferring to the West End. Dee is also well known for her musical credits, which include Carousel (for which she won her first Olivier), My One and Only, Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music, South Pacific and Mack and Mabel. She’s most recently been seen on the London stage in Donkeys’ Years, Shadowlands and, currently at the Open Air Theatre, Twelfth Night.

In Woman in Mind, Dee will play forty-something Susan, who is starved of affection by her vicar husband and distant son. After an accident with a rake, Susan is confronted with not just her real family but also an imaginary one that’s far more devoted. Woman in Mind premiered in Scarborough in 1985. The new production will run from 4 September to 4 October 2008.

Ayckbourn’s 72nd stage work, Awaking Beauty, is a new musical co-written with Denis King, with whom Ayckbourn previously collaborated on Orvin – Champion of Champions and Whenever. The new piece is a contemporary twist on a fairy tale with sexual fantasy and lust. It runs from 11 December 2008 to 17 January 2009, and will be Ayckbourn’s final production as artistic director.

In between Woman in Mind and Awaking Beauty, Barrie Rutter will direct and perform Jack Lear, Ben Benison’s fisherman reworking of Shakespeare’s King Lear. It runs from 16 October to 8 November 2008.

The 69-year-old Ayckbourn, who suffered a debilitating stroke two years ago that forced him to reduce his workload (See News, 31 Jul 2007), was encouraged to write by theatrical pioneer Stephen Joseph and, since 1971, has been the artistic director of the theatre, now called the Stephen Joseph Theatre, that his mentor founded in Scarborough in 1955.

One of the most prolific playwrights in British history, Ayckbourn has premiered almost all of his plays in Scarborough, though they don\'t usually stay there. Since his first London hit, Relatively Speaking, opened at the Duke of York\'s in 1967, more than 25 of Ayckbourn\'s plays have subsequently been produced in the West End, at the National or the Royal Shakespeare Company. These include Absurd Person Singular, Bedroom Farce, A Small Family Business, The Norman Conquests - which is revived at the Old Vic next month (See News, 20 May 2008) - and more recently, Things We Do for Love, House and Garden, and Comic Potential.

Ayckbourn\'s plays have been translated into 30 languages, been performed on stage and television around the world. In 1997, he became the first playwright since Terence Rattigan to be knighted by the Queen.

At the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Ayckbourn will be succeeded as artistic director in the new year by Chris Monks, currently an associate director at the Royal Exchange, Manchester. Commenting on his appointment, Monks said: “I feel honoured and excited to follow Stephen Joseph and Alan Ayckbourn, to provide the artistic vision for this renowned theatre company. It’s a dream come true and I can’t wait to start. Moving back to Yorkshire, I’ll be returning to my roots: I was born and brought up in Sheffield, studied in Leeds, my family spent their holidays in Filey and Bridlington and my cousin lives in Whitby.”

- by Terri Paddock