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Ayckbourn, Sir Alan: Playwright/Director. Born: 1939

Published 6 February 2009

The prolific British playwright and director is one of the most performed playwrights in the world.

Since his playwriting debut in 1959, Alan Ayckbourn has written 72 full length plays and directed 300 productions, including the premiere productions of most of his own plays.

Born in Hampstead in 1939 to the novelist Mary James and a violinist father, Ayckbourn began to pursue a career in theatre immediately after leaving school, landing a job with theatre impresario Sir Donald Wolfit. His big break came when he secured a position as stage manager and actor at the Library Theatre in Scarborough, which was then run by Stephen Joseph. The older man became Ayckbourn’s mentor and encouraged him to write. As a result, Ayckbourn’s first play, The Square Cat, premiered in Scarborough in 1959. However, it was to be another eight years before his work was to reach a larger audience.

Ayckbourn had written several plays with varying success – Mr Whatnot received a critical mauling in London in 1964 – before Relatively Speaking premiered in Scarborough in 1965. It was a huge hit and transferred to London’s Duke of York’s theatre in 1967 starring Celia Johnson and Richard Briers. This was the start of a golden period for the playwright, and he went on to write some of his most popular plays, including The Norman Conquests, Absurd Person Singular and Absent Friends.

In the four decades since, Ayckbourn’s vast output has included Bedroom Farce, Joking Apart, Me, Myself And I, Intimate Exchanges, Old Times, A Chorus Of Disapproval, Woman In Mind, Invisible Friends, Dreams From A Summer House, Comic Potential and Improbable Fiction.

His work is renowned for its combination of farcical comedy, excruciating situations and achingly poignant characters who have very human flaws. Commenting on the 2007 revival of Absurd Person Singular, in which one character repeatedly, and hilariously, tries to commit suicide, Charles Spencer wrote in the Telegraph: “It feels almost indecent to laugh but somehow you just can’t stop yourself.”

Despite his worldwide success – his plays have been translated into 30 languages – Ayckbourn has remained loyal to the theatre that premiered his first play. When his mentor Stephen Joseph died in 1967, Ayckbourn continued his involvement with the theatre until he formally became Artistic Director in 1972. Renamed the Stephen Joseph theatre, the venue has twice changed locations in Scarborough and now resides in a former cinema. The majority of Ayckbourn’s plays received their world premieres in Scarborough.

In keeping with the configuration of the Stephen Joseph theatre, Ayckbourn’s plays are mainly written to be staged in-the-round, meaning productions have to be re-worked when they are staged in one of London’s proscenium arch theatres.

Though he remained Artistic Director of the Scarborough venue for 26 years, Ayckbourn was invited by Peter Hall to form his own company at the National Theatre in 1986. During the two years he spent as a visiting director, Ayckbourn directed one of his own plays and work by other playwrights, including Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge, which Guardian critic Michael Billington recently referred to as a “sensational revival”.

To date, some 40 of Ayckbourn’s 72 plays have been produced in London, with several revivals. However, in 2003, dissatisfied by a couple of productions of his work, the playwright declared he would no longer allow new productions of his plays in the West End. This lasted until he granted producer Bill Kenwright permission to stage a revival of Absurd Person Singular in London in 2007. A successful production of The Norman Conquests followed at the Old Vic in 2008.

Ayckbourn announced his retirement from the Stephen Joseph theatre in 2008. His final, self-penned, production for the venue was Christmas musical Awaking Beauty.

He was appointed a CBE in 1987 and knighted in 1997.

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