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Past/Present/Future for … Alan Ayckbourn

Alan Ayckbourn will be 70 this April and, although he has physically slowed down since his stroke three years ago, getting about with the aid of a stick and his constant companion and second wife Heather Stoney, he shows no signs of slowing down on the work front. He has a full diary for the next two years, starting with this week’s opening of his own revival from Scarborough of Woman in Mind starring Janie Dee at the Vaudeville, the theatre where the play first opened in London in 1985. Sir Alan retired last year as the artistic director of the “in the round” Stephen Joseph Theatre he has run, in three separate buildings, in his adopted Yorkshire home town, since 1967. He has written seventy-two full-length plays including Relatively Speaking (1965), The Norman Conquests (1972), Bedroom Farce (1975), A Chorus of Disapproval (1984), Man of the Moment (1988), Communicating Doors (1994), House and Garden (1999) and Private Fears in Public Places (2004). His plays have been translated into more than thirty languages. He was made CBE in 1987 and knighted in 1997, the first living dramatist to be so honoured since Noel Coward. The new Stephen Joseph Theatre opened in a converted art deco Odeon cinema near the railway station in 1996.

PAST: I never look back too much, really.  I’m always running from the first night eager to get on with the new play, partly as protective covering. But, as Michael Bogdanov once said to me, if you keep running they can’t hit you.

I was annoyed and saddened that the trilogy of Damsels in Distress was never given a chance in the West End in 2002 when Michael Codron and Nica Burns pulled two of them after they opened. The whole fun of it was seeing seven actors doing twenty-one parts, as in the old weekly rep.

Everything starts in Scarborough and I’m not altogether in favour of the policy of star casting in the West End, though I see that producers need their banking stars. My plays are often theatrical events, not star vehicles, and I decided I don’t want them to come to London any more. My last new play to be seen in London was Private Fears in Public Places, and that was at the Orange Tree four years ago. The Scarborough production of that play had a massive success in New York with the original cast.

PRESENT: We – designer Roger Glossop and lighting designer Mick Hughes and I – threw the kitchen sink at Woman in 1985 but this is much simpler and what tricks there are come from lighting and sound and, of course, the actors. I made a vow always to respect what the writer had written before me, and an old know-all like me probably couldn’t write it better than the young man who did.

It has been a struggle at the new theatre since it opened ten years ago, and now they have to do without my financial contribution – I never took a salary. But they’ve appointed a very good director, Chris Monks, as the new artistic director, and he knows his onions in the round.

The chief problem in London is ticket prices. Our top price in Scarborough is £15 or £17 on a Saturday night, but you can get in equally well for a fiver. Here, we’re two blocks down the road from Joseph which is charging roughly the same as us and offering the average punter songs, dancers and a cast of thousands. It seems a better deal. The new play without a star doesn’t stand a chance in Hades, so it needs to have some sort of buzz about it.

FUTURE: I’m going back to Scarborough as a guest director of my own How the Other Half Loves and I’ve promised them a new play for the autumn. No more office: now I’m one of the green room gang! I’m also guest directing Man of the Moment at the Northampton Rep for Laurie Sansom, who was an associate of mine at Scarborough, and who’s doing a whole Ayckbourn fest, bless him, this summer, including Just Between Ourselves and Private Fears. His youth and community groups are chipping in, too.

The day after The Norman Conquests opened to acclaim at the Old Vic, I got a telephone call from David Pugh asking me to team up again with director Matthew Warchus on a new Uncle Vanya. So I’ll be writing that from a literal translation for Ralph Fiennes and Ken Stott in 2010.

Otherwise, life is much the same in Scarborough. Same house. The family. All I have to do is try and keep away from the theatre a bit more. There’s nothing worse than former artistic directors turning up like ghosts to complain about this or that being done differently.

- Alan Ayckbourn was speaking to Michael Coveney

Woman in Mind opens at the Vaudelville theatre on Friday (6 February, previews from 29 January), where it runs until 31 May 2009 .


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