When Alan Ayckbourn was six years old, his mother gave him a typewriter. Sitting at her feet on the floor, he began “bashing out long, complicated stories with two fingers”, which he admits were “total stinkers”. But as he learnt to use more digits, the stories improved, and 63 years later have made Ayckbourn the most prolific playwright of his generation.
He is quick to acknowledge the influence of his mother, who made her living writing short stories for women’s magazines. “I spent a lot of my time in her company as a child and she would sit tapping away at her typewriter, so I grew up thinking
that’s what mothers did,” he says.
“If she’d have been a baker, I would probably have started rolling out pastries.”
Ayckbourn’s many hits, such as Bedroom Farce, The Revengers’ Comedies and Absurd Person Singular, have made him the world’s most performed living playwright.
Ayckbourn has been writing plays for 50 years, and his work is more popular than ever. Last year, The Norman Conquests, a trilogy written in 1973, was revived to great acclaim at the Old Vic, and will open on Broadway later this year, where a street has been named Ayckbourn Alley in his honour.
Today, he is in London to oversee the West End revival of Woman in Mind, a dark comedy about a woman trapped in a loveless marriage who slowly succumbs to madness, which he is directing himself.
We meet at his pied-à-terre in east London, where, with its huge windows looking on to the river, Ayckbourn loves to watch the boats and barges chug up and down the Thames. “It’s very much a home away from home,” he says. “When I snuffled around for somewhere to buy in London, I saw this place and thought: ‘Great, it’s just like Scarborough.'”
Scarborough, where Ayckbourn lives most of the time with his second wife, Heather, is his spiritual home, and is where, for 37 years, he has been artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre. It is also where nearly all of his 72 plays have had their first performances.
Born in Hampstead and schooled in Hertfordshire, he came to Scarborough as an 18-year-old actor and never left. “I started out as an actor/writer and, as the flagrant self-publicist that I was, I wrote all the best parts for myself,” he says. “But the writing improved while the acting didn’t. One of those two personas had to go, so I fired the actor.”
He has been described as the “Molière of the middle classes” for his ability to lay bare the foibles of suburban bourgeoisie and depict the frustrations and disappointments of married life. He admits that he soaked up much inspirational fodder from his own rather unconventional early family life.
Ayckbourn’s father, Horace, was the lead violinist with the London Symphony Orchestra, who ran off with the second violinist, abandoning the young Alan and his mother, Irene. The couple had never been married, because Irene was already married to someone else, who she only divorced to marry a bank manager in 1948. Ayckbourn says he still isn’t sure quite how many marriages she had, and only recently discovered, courtesy of his biographer, that he has a half-brother.
“Yes, it was a rather colourful upbringing. I suppose most of what you write about for the rest of your life, if you’re really writing from within, is all there by the time you’re 12. Even though I’ve lived in Yorkshire for most of my life, my inner voice is a Cockney, common as hell,” he says, feigning an east London accent.
Many of his characters, he admits, are based on bits and pieces of himself and his nearest and dearest. “You mine yourself a lot. I have a sum of human failings. I lie, cheat and dissemble – so most of the characters spring from me.
“I’ve used my loved ones quite flagrantly and shamelessly. I remember sitting next to my first wife in one of my plays, and after a scene she said: ‘That was a private conversation!'”
The critic Michael Billington once said that Ayckbourn was critically underestimated because he wrote comedies. I ask the “King of Giggles”, as he is often described, whether he finds it irksome that even though he has been knighted for his work, some critics have sniffily refused to consider him alongside the likes of Harold Pinter, Sir Tom Stoppard and Sir David Hare.
“It’s more important to me to make people laugh, provided they come. If a house is full of people, you know you’re doing something right.”
The plays have flowed thick and fast for most of his 50-year career, but in 2006, when Ayckbourn suffered a stroke while lying on an osteopath’s bed, he encountered a frightening dearth of creativity.
“Coming out of the stroke, for the first terrifying weeks, it was like a woman who’d been pregnant all her life and wasn’t pregnant any more. I had no idea of a play at all, when I had always been able to write through any block. It was very lonely. So I decided to just direct for a bit.
“Being in the rehearsal room is the most rejuvenating force for me. I thrive on their [actors’] energy like some old emotional vampire, and that brought me round.”
The stroke has, however, left him frail, and he walks with a stick. He acknowledges that his writing has since become darker, although, he insists, it is “never morbid”.
“People assume with writing that, hopefully, over the years, you improve, but I wouldn’t bank on it,” he laughs. “That’s why I haven’t changed a word of Woman in Mind for the revival. It would be arrogant for a near 70-year-old [his birthday is in April] to think he could improve on a 50-year-old’s work, however much I might be tempted.”
Next month, the curtain will come down on Ayckbourn’s reign as artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre. While he will continue to write and direct plays for his beloved playhouse, there is an overwhelming sadness about him when he talks of handing over to someone else.
“It’s quite strange, really,” he says, wistfully looking down at his hands. “Since the stroke I have eased out of the day-to-day running of the place, but it feels funny to go into a building where I no longer have an office.”
He is most definitely not, he insists, retiring, and speaks excitedly about two revivals of How the Other Half Lives and Man of the Moment he will direct at Scarborough later this year. But why not just sit back and enjoy the fruits of his success?
“Because I think I’ll probably drop dead in a rehearsal room, getting over-excited trying to outmanoeuvre some young stripling, or at the computer,” he explains. “I’d be lost otherwise. I’m not very good at going on holidays or sitting on beaches – I wouldn’t know where to start to relax.”
His final play as artistic director at Scarborough was Awaking Beauty, a tongue-in-cheek musical about a woman’s quest for eternal youth. “There is something rather nice about writing musicals,” he muses, although he is not generally a fan of the genre which is currently dominating the West End. “Most musicals are tacky old wrecks, with a few exceptions, but some are an insult to the intelligence. They are so loud.”
His other bugbear is the stream of Hollywood and soap-opera stars treading the boards. In 2002, he announced a moratorium of his plays transferring to the West End after he felt it had been taken over by “lesser” actors. It is a position he has only recently relaxed.
“These ‘stars’ look at a script and say: ‘Well, I don’t think much of my part – I’m off for three pages’,” he says disdainfully. “It’s a double-edged sword, especially with celebrity figures from soap operas. You bring in an audience with expectations who feel let down because they are not seeing their favourite character from EastEnders.”
Might the King of Giggles ever be tempted to write a tragedy, particularly in these hard times? “No, I don’t think so. If you paint a picture, you’ve got to put light and shadow in it. Comedy is the light. A play with no laughs is like a flower with no water. It just dies.
“Maybe I’ll write a play about a family that suddenly finds it hasn’t got any money, but I’m not going to do a huge great castigation of Gordon Brown and his mishandling of the economy,” he says with a wry smile.
“I’ll leave that one to Mr Hare.”
* Woman In Mind is at the Vaudeville Theatre, The Strand, London WC2 (0870 890 0511, www.vaudeville-theatre.co.uk ) until June