Sir Alan Ayckbourn at the National Theatre, April 2010
|Born||12 April 1939|
Hampstead, London, England, U
Sir Alan Ayckbourn, CBE FRSA (born 12 April 1939) is a prolific British playwright and director. He has written and produced more than seventy full-length plays in Scarborough and London and was, between 1972 and 2009, the artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, where all but four of his plays have received their first performance. More than 40 have subsequently been produced in the West End, at the Royal National Theatre or by the Royal Shakespeare Company since his first hit Relatively Speaking opened at the Duke of York's Theatre in 1969.
Major successes include Absurd Person Singular (1975), The Norman Conquests trilogy (1973), Bedroom Farce (1975), Just Between Ourselves (1976), A Chorus of Disapproval (1984), Woman in Mind (1985), A Small Family Business (1987), Man Of The Moment (1988), House & Garden (1999) and Private Fears in Public Places (2004). His plays have won numerous awards, including seven London Evening Standard Awards. They have been translated into over 35 languages and are performed on stage and television throughout the world. Ten of his plays have been staged on Broadway, attracting two Tony nominations, and one Tony award.
Ayckbourn was born in Hampstead, London. His mother Irene Worley ("Lolly") (1906–1998) was a writer of short stories who published under the name "Mary James". His father, Horace Ayckbourn (1904–1965), was an orchestral violinist, at one time deputy leader of the London Symphony Orchestra. His parents, who separated shortly after World War II, never married, and Ayckbourn's mother divorced her first husband to marry again in 1948.
Ayckbourn wrote his first play at Wisborough Lodge (a preparatory school in the village of Wisborough Green) when he was about 10. Whilst at prep school as a boarder, his mother wrote to tell him she was marrying Cecil Pye, a bank manager. When he went home for the holidays, his new family consisted of his mother, his stepfather and Christopher, his stepfather's son by an earlier marriage. This relationship too, reportedly ran into difficulties early on.
After leaving school at 17, Ayckbourn's career took several temporary jobs in various places before starting a temporary job at the Scarborough Library Theatre, where he was introduced to the artistic director, Stephen Joseph. It is said that Joseph became both a mentor and father figure for Ayckbourn until his untimely death in 1967, and he has consistently spoken highly of him.
Ayckbourn's career was briefly interrupted when he was called for National Service. He was swiftly discharged, officially on medical grounds, but it is suggested that a doctor who noticed his reluctance to join the Armed Forces deliberately failed the medical as a favour. Although Ayckbourn continued to move where his career took him, he settled in Scarborough, eventually buying Longwestgate House, the house formerly owned by Stephen Joseph.
In 1957, Ayckbourn married Christine Roland, another member of the Library Theatre company, and indeed Ayckbourn's first two plays were written jointly with her under the pseudonym of "Roland Allen". They had two sons, Steven and Philip. However, the marriage had difficulties which eventually led to their separation in 1971. Ayckbourn said that his relationship with Roland became easy once they agreed their marriage was over. Around this time, he started to share a home with Heather Stoney, an actress he had first met ten years earlier. Like his mother, neither he nor Roland sought a divorce for the next thirty years and it was only in 1997 that they formally divorced; Ayckbourn married Stoney. One side-effect of the timing is that, as Ayckbourn was awarded a knighthood a few months before the divorce, both his first and second wife were entitled to take the title of Lady Ayckbourn.
In February 2006, he suffered a stroke in Scarborough, and stated: "I hope to be back on my feet, or should I say my left leg, as soon as possible, but I know it is going to take some time. In the meantime I am in excellent hands and so is the Stephen Joseph Theatre." He left hospital after eight weeks and returned to directing after six months, but the following year he announced he would step down as artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Ayckbourn, however, continues to write and direct his own work at the theatre.
Since Ayckbourn's plays started becoming established in the West End, interviewers have raised the question of whether his work is autobiographical. There is no clear answer to this question. There has only been one biography, written by Paul Allen, and this primarily covers his career in the theatre. Ayckbourn has frequently said he sees aspects of himself in all his characters. For example, in Bedroom Farce (1975), he admitted to being, in some respects, all four of the men in the play. It has been suggested that, after Ayckbourn himself, the person who is used the most in his plays is his mother, particularly as Susan in Woman in Mind (1985).
What is less clear is how much influence events in Ayckbourn's life have had on his writing. It is true that the theme of marriages in various difficulties was heavily present throughout his plays in the early seventies, around the time his own marriage was coming to an end. However, by this time, he had also witnessed the failures of his parents' relationships as well as those of some of his friends. Which relationships, if any, he drew on for his plays, is unclear. In Paul Allen's biography, Ayckbourn is briefly compared to Dafydd and Guy in A Chorus of Disapproval (1984). Both characters feel themselves in trouble, and there was speculation that Ayckbourn himself may have felt himself to be in trouble. At the time, he had reportedly become seriously involved with another actress, which threatened his relationship with Stoney. But again, it is unclear whether this had any effect on the writing, and Paul Allen's view is that it is not current experience that Ayckbourn uses for his plays.
It could be that Ayckbourn had written plays with himself and his own issues in mind, but as Ayckbourn is portrayed as a guarded and private man, it is hard to imagine him exposing his own life in his plays to any great degree. In the biography, Paul Allen wrote, regarding a suggestion in Cosmopolitan that his plays were becoming autobiographical: "If we take that to mean that his plays tell his own life story, he still hasn't started."
On leaving school his theatrical career started immediately, with an introduction to Sir Donald Wolfit by his French master. Ayckbourn joined Wolfit on tour to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe as an acting assistant stage manager (meaning a role that involved both acting and stage management) for three weeks, with his first role on the professional stage being various parts in The Strong are Lonely by Fritz Hochwälder. In the following year, Ayckbourn appeared in six other plays at the Connaught Theatre, Worthing, and the Thorndyke theatre, Leatherhead.
In 1957, Ayckbourn was employed by the director Stephen Joseph at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, the predecessor to the modern Stephen Joseph Theatre. His role, again, was initially an acting stage manager. This employment led to Ayckbourn's first professional script commission, in 1958. When he complained about the quality of a script he was performing, Joseph challenged him to write a better one. The result was The Square Cat, written under the pseudonym Roland Allen and first performed in 1959. In this play, Ayckbourn himself played the character Jerry Watiss.
After thirty-four appearances in plays at the Library Theatre, including four of his own, in 1962 Ayckbourn moved to Stoke-on-Trent to help set up the Victoria Theatre, (now the New Vic), where he appeared in a further eighteen plays. His final appearance in one of his own plays was as the Crimson Gollywog in the disastrous children's play Christmas v Mastermind. He left the Stoke company in 1964, officially to commit his time to the London production of Mr. Whatnot, but reportedly because was having trouble working with the artistic director, Peter Cheeseman. By now, his career as a writer was coming to fruition, and his acting career was sidelined.
His final role on stage was as Jerry in Two for the Seesaw by William Gibson, at the Civic Theatre in Rotherham. He was left stranded on stage because Heather Stoney was unable to re-appear because the props had been left unpacked, and this led him to decide acting was more trouble than it was worth. The assistant stage manager on the production, Bill Kenwright, would become one of the UK's most successful producers.
Ayckbourn's earliest plays were written and produced at a time when the Scarborough Library theatre, like most regional theatres, regularly commissioned work from their own actors to keep costs down (the other notable actor whose work was being commissioned being David Campton). His first play, The Square Cat, was sufficiently popular locally to secure further commissions although not this or the following three plays had much impact beyond Scarborough. But, after his transfer to Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent, there came Christmas v Mastermind, which flopped and is now universally regarded as Ayckbourn's greatest disaster.
His fortunes began to revive in 1963 with Mr. Whatnot, again premiering at the Victoria Theatre. This was the first play that Ayckbourn was sufficiently happy with to allow performances today,[clarification needed] and the first play to receive a West End performance. However, the West End production flopped, in part down to misguided casting. After this, Ayckbourn experimented by collaborating with comedians, first writing a monologue for Tommy Cooper, and later with Ronnie Barker, who played Lord Slingsby-Craddock in the London production of Mr Whatnot in 1964, for the scripts of for LWT's Hark at Barker. Ayckbourn used the pseudonym 'Peter Caulfield' because he was under exclusive contract to the BBC at the time.
Then, in 1965, back at the Scarborough Library Theatre, Meet my Father was produced, later retitled Relatively Speaking. This time, the play was a massive success, both in Scarborough and the West End, making Alan Ayckbourn rich and earning him a congratulatory telegram from Noël Coward. This was not quite the end of Ayckbourn's hit-and-miss record, because his following play, The Sparrow only ran for three weeks at Scarborough. However, the following play, How the Other Half Loves, secured his runaway success as a playwright.
The height of Ayckbourn's commercial success included Absurd Person Singular (1975), The Norman Conquests trilogy (1973), Bedroom Farce (1975) and Just Between Ourselves (1976), all plays that focused heavily on marriage in the British middle classes. The only failure during this period was a 1975 musical with Andrew Lloyd Webber, Jeeves, and even this did little to dent Ayckbourn's popularity. Although his plays have received major West End productions almost from the beginning of his writing career, and hence have been reviewed in British newspapers, Ayckbourn's work was for years routinely dismissed as being too slight for serious study. Recently, scholars have begun to view Ayckbourn as an important commentator on the lifestyles of the British suburban middle class, and as a stylistic innovator who experiments with theatrical styles within the boundaries set by popular tastes.
From the 1980s, Ayckbourn began to move away from the recurring themes of marriage and explore other contemporary themes, one example being Woman in Mind, a play performed entirely from the perspective of a Woman going through a nervous breakdown. He also experimented with several more unconventional ways of writing plays, such as Intimate Exchanges, which has one beginning and sixteen possible endings, and House & Garden, where two plays take place simultaneously of two different stages, as well as diversifying into children's theatre (such as Mr A's Amazing Maze Plays and musical plays, such as By Jeeves (a more successful rewrite of the original Jeeves).
With a résumé of over seventy plays, of which more than forty have played at the National Theatre or in the West End, Alan Ayckbourn is one of England's most successful living playwrights. Despite his success, honours and awards (which include a prestigious Laurence Olivier Award), Alan Ayckbourn remains a relatively anonymous figure dedicated to regional theatre. Throughout his writing career, all but four of his plays were premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough in its three different locations.
Ayckbourn received the CBE in 1987 and was knighted in the 1997 New Year Honours. It is frequently claimed (but not proven) that Alan Ayckbourn is the most performed living English playwright, and the second most performed of all time after Shakespeare.
Although Ayckbourn's plays no longer dominate the theatrical scene on the scale of his earlier works, he continues to write, his most recent major success being Private Fears in Public Places that had a hugely successful Off-Broadway run at 59E59 Theaters, and in 2006 was made into a film Cœurs, directed by Alain Resnais. After suffering a stroke, there was uncertainty as to whether he could continue to write (the Ayckbourn play premiered immediately after the stroke, If I Were You, was written before his illness), but his first play written afterwards, Life and Beth, was premiered in the summer of 2008. Ayckbourn continues to write for the Stephen Joseph Theatre on invitation of his successor as artistic director, Chris Monks, with the first new play under this arrangement, My Wonderful Day, performed in October 2009. His latest play, Roundelay is scheduled to open in September 2014; the order in which each of the five acts is played in each performance is to be left to chance (allowing 120 possible permutations), with members of the audience being invited to extract five coloured ping pong balls from a bag beforehand.
Many of Ayckbourn's plays have had their New York premiere at 59E59 Theaters as part of their annual Brits Off Broadway Festitval including Private Fears in Public Places, Intimate Exchanges, My Wonderful Day and Neighbourhood Watch among others.
Although Ayckbourn is best known as a writer, it is said that he only spends 10% of his time writing plays. Most of the rest of his time is spent directing.
Ayckbourn began directing at the Scarborough Library Theatre in 1961, with a production of Gaslight by Patrick Hamilton. He directed five other plays that year and the following year in Scarborough, and after transferring to the Victoria Theatre, directed a further six plays in 1963. Between 1964 and 1967 (when much of his time was taken up by various productions of his early successes Mr. Whatnot and Relatively Speaking) he only directed one play (The Sparrow, written by himself, later withdrawn), but in 1968 he resumed regularly directing plays, mostly at Scarborough. At this time he also worked as a radio drama producer for the BBC, based in Leeds.
At first, his directing career was separate from his writing career. It was not until 1963 that Ayckbourn directed a play of his own (a revival of Standing Room Only), 1967 that Ayckbourn directed a premiere of his own (The Sparrow). The London premieres remained in the hands of other directors for longer, with the first play of his both written and directed by him in London (Bedroom Farce) waiting until 1977.
After the death of Stephen Joseph in 1967, the position of Director of Productions was appointed on an annual basis. Ayckbourn was offered this position in 1969 and 1970, succeeding Rodney Wood, but he handed the position over to Caroline Smith in 1971 (having spent most of his time that year in the US with How the Other Half Loves). He became Director of Productions again in 1972, and this time, on 12 November that same year, he was made the permanent artistic director of the theatre.
In mid-1986, Ayckbourn accepted an invitation to work as a visiting director for two years at the Royal National Theatre in London, form his own company, and perform a play in each of the three auditoria provided at least one was a new play of his own. Using a stock company that included established performers like Michael Gambon, Polly Adams and Simon Cadell. The three plays became four, and were: Tons of Money by Will Evans and Valentine, with adaptations by Ayckbourn (Lyttelton), Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge (Cottesloe), his own A Small Family Business (Olivier) and John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (Olivier again). During this time, Ayckbourn shared his role of artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre with Robin Herford and returned in 1987 to direct the premiere of Henceforward....
He announced in 1999 that he would step back from directing the work of other playwrights, in order to concentrate on his own plays, the last one being Rob Shearman's Knights in Plastic Armour in 1999; the exception being in 2002 when he directed the world premiere of Tim Firth's The Safari Party.
In 2002, following a dispute over the Duchess Theatre's handling of Damsels in Distress, Ayckbourn sharply criticised both this and the West End's treatment of theatre in general, in particular their casting of celebrities. Although he did not explicitly say he would boycott the West End, he did not return to direct in the West End again until 2009 with a revival of Woman in Mind (although he did allow other West End producers to revive Absurd Person Singular in 2007 and The Norman Conquests in 2008).
He announced in June 2007 that he would retire as artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre after the 2008 season. His successor, Chris Monks, took over at the start of the 2009–2010 season, but Ayckbourn remained to direct premieres and revivals of his work at the theatre, beginning with How the Other Half Loves in June 2009.
In July 2014, Ayckbourn directed a musical adaptation of The Boy Who Fell Into A Book, with musical adaptation and lyrics by Paul James and music by Eric Angus and Cathy Shostak. The show ran in The Stephen Joseph Theatre and received critical acclaim.
|1956: Acting assistant stage manager with Donald Wolfit's company for three weeks at Edinburgh Festival.|
|1956 – 1957: Actor at Worthing, Leatherhead, Scarborough (see below), and Oxford|
|1957 – 1962: Acting assistant stage manager (1957 only) and actor (1958–1962) at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, Yorkshire|
|1962 – 1964: Associate director, Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire|
|1964 – 1970: Drama producer, BBC Radio, Leeds|
|1972 – 2009: Artistic director, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough (formerly Library Theatre & Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round)|
|1986 – 1988: Associate Director, National Theatre, London|
|1991 – 1992: Cameron Mackintosh Professor of contemporary theatre, Oxford University|
|Play number[nb 1]||Title||Series||Scarborough premiere[nb 2]||West End premiere||New York premiere|
|1||The Square Cat [nb 3]||30 July 1959|
|2||Love After All [nb 3]||21 December 1959|
|3||Dad's Tale [nb 3]||19 December 1960|
|4||Standing Room Only [nb 3]||13 July 1961||(12 June 1966) [nb 4]|
|5||Christmas V Mastermind [nb 3]||26 December 1962|
|6||Mr Whatnot||12 November 1963||6 August 1964|
|7||Relatively Speaking [nb 5]||9 July 1965||29 March 1967|
|8||The Sparrow [nb 3]||13 July 1967|
|9||How the Other Half Loves||31 July 1969||5 August 1970||29 March 1971|
|10||Family Circles [nb 6]||20 August 1970||8 October 1974|
|11||Time And Time Again||8 July 1971||16 August 1972|
|12||Absurd Person Singular||26 June 1972||4 July 1973||8 October 1974|
|13||The Norman Conquests||Table Manners [nb 7]||18 June 1973||9 May 1974||7 December 1975|
|14||Living Together [nb 8]||26 June 1973||21 May 1974||7 December 1975|
|15||Round and Round the Garden||2 July 1973||6 June 1974||7 December 1975|
|16||Absent Friends||17 June 1974||23 July 1975|
|17||Confusions [nb 9]||30 September 1974||19 May 1976|
|18||Jeeves [nb 3][nb 10]||22 April 1975|
|19||Bedroom Farce||16 June 1975||16 March 1977||29 March 1979|
|20||Just Between Ourselves||28 January 1976||20 April 1977|
|21||Ten Times Table||18 January 1977||5 April 1978|
|22||Joking Apart||11 January 1978||7 March 1979|
|23||Sisterly Feelings||10/11 January 1979 [nb 11]||3/4 June 1980 [nb 11]|
|24||Taking Steps||28 September 1979||2 September 1980||20 February 1991|
|25||Suburban Strains||18 January 1980||5 February 1981|
|26||Season's Greetings||25 September 1980||29 March 1982|
|27||Way Upstream||2 October 1981||4 October 1982|
|28||Making Tracks [nb 3]||16 December 1981||14 March 1983|
|29||Intimate Exchanges[nb 12]||Affairs in a Tent||3 June 1982||14 August 1984||(31 May 2007) [nb 13]|
|Events on a Hotel Terrace|
|A Garden Fete|
|A Cricket Match|
|A Game of Golf|
|A One Man Protest|
|Love in the Mist|
|30||It Could Be Any One Of Us [nb 14]||5 October 1983||14 March 1983|
|31||2 May 1984||1 August 1985|
|32||Woman in Mind||30 May 1985||3 September 1986|
|33||A Small Family Business||20 May 1987||27 April 1992|
|34||Henceforward...||30 July 1987||21 November 1988|
|35||Man Of The Moment||10 August 1988||14 February 1990|
|36||Mr A's Amazing Maze Plays||30 November 1988||4 March 1993|
|37||13 June 1989||13 March 1991|
|38||Invisible Friends||23 November 1989||13 March 1991|
|39||Body Language||21 May 1990|
|40||This Is Where We Came In||4/11 January 1990|
|41||Callisto 5 [nb 16]||12 December 1990|
|42||Wildest Dreams||6 May 1991||14 December 1993|
|43||My Very Own Story||10 August 1991|
|44||Time Of My Life||21 April 1992||3 August 1993||6 June 2014|
|45||Dreams From A Summer House||26 August 1992|
|46||Communicating Doors||2 February 1994||7 August 1995|
|47||Haunting Julia [nb 17]||20 April 1994|
|48||The Musical Jigsaw Play [nb 3]||1 December 1994|
|49||A Word From Our Sponsor||20 April 1995|
|(18)||By Jeeves [nb 10]||2 July 1996||2 July 1996||28 October 2001|
|50||The Champion Of Paribanou||4 December 1996|
|51||Things We Do For Love||29 April 1997 [nb 18]||2 March 1998|
|52||Comic Potential||4 June 1998||13 October 1999|
|53||The Boy Who Fell Into A Book||4 December 1998|
|54||House and Garden [nb 19]||House||17 June 1999 [nb 18]||8 August 2000|
|55||Garden||17 June 1999||8 August 2000|
|(41)||Callisto#7 [nb 16]||4 December 1999|
|56||Virtual Reality [nb 3]||8 February 2000 [nb 18]|
|57||Whenever||5 December 2000|
|58||Damsels in Distress||GamePlan||29 May 2001||7 September 2002|
|59||FlatSpin||3 July 2001||7 September 2002|
|60||RolePlay||4 September 2001||7 September 2002|
|61||Snake in the Grass [nb 17]||5 June 2002|
|62||The Jollies||3 December 2002|
|63||Sugar Daddies||23 July 2003|
|64||Orvin - Champion Of Champions||8 August 2003|
|65||My Sister Sadie||2 December 2003|
|66||Drowning on Dry Land||4 May 2004|
|67||Private Fears in Public Places||17 August 2004||(5 May 2005) [nb 20]||(9 June 2005)[nb 20]|
|68||Miss Yesterday||2 December 2004|
|69||Improbable Fiction||31 May 2005|
|70||If I Were You||17 October 2006|
|71||Things That Go Bump||Life and Beth [nb 17]||22 July 2008|
|72||Awaking Beauty||16 December 2008|
|73||My Wonderful Day||13 October 2009|
|74||Life of Riley||16 September 2010|
|75||Neighbourhood Watch||13 September 2011|
|76||Surprises||17 July 2012|
|77||Arrivals & Departures||6 August 2013||29 May 2014|
|78||Roundelay||9 September 2014|
|79||The Divide (Parts One and Two)||30 January 2018|
There are eight one-act plays written by Alan Ayckbourn. Five of them (Mother Figure, Drinking Companion, Between Mouthfuls, Gosforth’s Fete and Widows Might) were written for Confusions, first performed in 1974.
The other three one-act plays were:
Plays adapted as films include:
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