Published in the Guardian on December 28, 2011.
The bar at 59 East 59th Street Theatres in Manhattan has two signature Alan Ayckbourn cocktails on the menu. The Fresh Wind, a mix of Stolichnaya, vermouth, pink grapefruit juice and Cointreau, served up, has been the theatre’s second most popular drink since he devised it for a run of Private Fears in Public Places, in 2005. The Blue Montmorency, named after the garden gnome in his latest play, Neighbourhood Watch, is a combination of Grey Goose, Blue Curaçao and lemonade, shaken and chilled. “It’s a killer,” says Ayckbourn, an expert observer of what happens when alcohol loosens repressed rage and desire.
Neighbourhood Watch is his fourth production at the theatre, following Intimate Exchanges and My Wonderful Day. Every other year he brings a company from the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, to be greeted by reliably stellar reviews in the local press. Charles Isherwood, of the New York Times, wrote that the Yorkshire town “should be anointed a Mecca for admirers of first-rate, frill-free acting.”
Ayckbourn moves slowly these days, a result of the hip operation he underwent earlier this year and a stroke he suffered in 2006. Although he walks with a stick and has difficulty with stairs, his creative productivity remains astonishing. He has just finished his 76th play, a set of interlocking love stories called Surprises. “I describe it as being a play with its head in the future but its heart in the past,” he says. “It revisits some of my favourite themes of time travel, androids, robotics.”
The play is set in a near future where people live to be 180 years old. “It’s been quite fascinating to be writing at my advanced age about really old age,” he says. Surprises will premiere in Scarborough, as always, before a London run during the Cultural Olympiad.
Over the decades, Ayckbourn has gone in and out of fashion in New York. In 1976, a sign at the corner of Broadway and 45th Street was changed to Ayckbourn Alley for the day, in recognition of four plays – the Norman Conquests and Absurd Person Singular – running at the same time. His revival of By Jeeves, with music by Andrew Lloyd-Webber, opened in October 2001, shortly after terrorists destroyed the World Trade Centre. It closed within a month. “I saw publicity stunts like serving people tea outside the theatre and thought ‘if I was an American, I’d punch them on the nose.’”
American actors have often struggled with the nuances of his inimitably English dialogue. The first of his plays to be performed on Broadway was How The Other Half Loves, in 1971, starring Phil Silvers, under the direction of Gene Saks. “It was a very American show, an experiment to try to make my work American, which I think in retrospect makes as much sense as setting Neil Simon in Godalming,” Ayckbourn says.
The comparison with Simon, best known for his early plays The Odd Couple and Barefoot In The Park, has been made often enough to become a minor annoyance. “It’s no good, partly because Neil’s work comes from a different angle,” Ayckbourn says. “His older, classic scripts, you can count the jokes coming off the page, hitting you.”
Of late, American reviewers are more inclined to bracket him with Anton Chekhov. Reviewing the Old Vic production of the Norman Conquests, which transferred from London in 2009 and won a Tony Award for best revival, New York Times critic Ben Brantley observed that “Ayckbourn, like Chekhov, mines the explosive potential of irritable, dissatisfied and restlessly bored people in close quarters” – two years before Ayckbourn relocated Vanya’s home to the Lake District, in his adaptation, Dear Uncle.
At last year’s Tonys, at Radio City Music Hall, Ayckbourn received a lifetime achievement award. “I was standing in the middle of the stage, feeling rather vulnerable and alone, when suddenly the whole place lit up,” he remembers. “There were people piled high, clapping, then standing. I thought ‘this is like the Roman Coliseum.’ I was so moved that I stumbled out my speech, turned around, quite choked up, and because I’m not too stable, nearly fell over on the turn upstage to get the award.”
British productions have been enjoying a notable run of success in New York. The National Theatre’s War Horse won best play and best direction this year at the Tonys, while best actor went to Mark Rylance, for his phenomenal turn as Rooster Byron, in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, which proved that a Broadway show can be littered with swearwords and in-jokes about Swindon, providing it’s good enough. Ayckbourn points out that, in common with other successful transfers such as La Cage Aux Folles and Red, both plays came from the subsidised theatre sector, where directors can afford to take risks.
Ayckbourn’s plays are performed all over the United States, something that gives him great satisfaction, as a champion of regional theatre. He has been approached by ACT – A Contemporary Theatre, in Seattle, to direct his own work with local actors next year. “It’s not that they can’t do it, but the approach has to be set by the director,” he says. “I’d need to cast it very carefully.”
At a recent seminar in Chicago, for members of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the actors initially played up the humour in Ayckbourn’s dialogue, until he taught them that performing it straight, emphasising the tension and resentment inherent in family relationships, would get bigger laughs. “I told them ‘play it as if you mean it,’” he says. “Play it like Tennessee Williams, please.”