Alan Ayckbourn, who celebrates his 80th birthday on April 12, is seldom referred to as a serious dramatist. Yet the best of his comedies – and there’s a considerable number of them – were written in earnest.
These plays are funny – seriously funny – because they contain insights into human behaviour that run deep. He doesn’t so much speak of the woe that is in marriage – he positively revels in it, like the consummately skilled farceur that he is.
There are times, watching and listening to adulterous husbands and wives making ever more elaborate and unconvincing excuses for their gaffes, when I think the play I’m enjoying might have penned by Ibsen in an unexpectedly frivolous mood or by Strindberg after taking a drug that induced a curious state of happiness. But no, it’s Alan Ayckbourn reminding us that the leafy, prosperous suburbs of provincial cities have their Hedda Gablers, too, and that slinky femme fatale living alone at The Gables might just be another Miss Julie.
Ayckbourn would appear to be the least autobiographical of writers, if only because he has a daunting range of credible characters at his command.
This dedicated man of the theatre knows how to fill a stage with interesting people. No one’s too dull or too pretentious or too silly for him – in his expert hands, every bore or nincompoop retains a recognizable individuality. He avoids turning them into caricatures for the simple reason that he is keen to discover what makes them tick.
I think of Bernard, the obsessive who is trying to build his puppet theatre in Season’s Greetings, while everyone else gathered around him for the Christmas festivities is getting lecherous or drunk or both at the same time. Bernard carries on with his project, disregarding the squabbling and door-slamming that would alert anyone less devoted and single-minded to the fact that something troubling is going on. This is comedy of a distinctly original kind.
For most of his long career, Ayckbourn has been associated, in one form or another, with the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, where all but a few of his many plays have received their first performances, often under his own direction. He has always been happiest as a company man, working alongside actors with whom he is in sympathetic accordance. This generosity of spirit is reflected in his achievements as a playwright.
You leave the theatre after seeing a Tom Stoppard play marvelling at Stoppard’s wit and cleverness. But when you’ve seen an Ayckbourn, you come out with a wholly different feeling – that the men and women who have just made fools of themselves on stage have held up a mirror, perhaps, to some of your very own absurdities.
Alan Ayckbourn suffered a stroke 12 years ago, from which he seems to be completely recovered. It is very good to still have him with us.