Who is Alan Ayckbourn?
Are you familiar with Sir Alan Ayckbourn? That would be unsurprising as he’s one of England's most successful living playwrights. He has written and produced more than seventy full length plays which have won numerous awards, including seven London Evening Standard Awards and a Tony. His works have been translated into over 35 languages and are performed on stage and television throughout the world (including here in little old Enfield). Also, of note, he’s now 80-years-old and still writing away.
However, despite these accomplishments, Ayckbourn remains a relatively anonymous figure, known for being particularly guarded and private. But this hasn’t stopped people from questioning whether or not his work is autobiographical. Such is the plight of many a writer. To be fair, he has stated in multiple interviews that he can see aspects of himself in all of his characters.
What we do know for sure about Ayckbourn is that he’s faced a lot of conflicts in life that many other people can relate to, which may be one reason why his writing is so successful. Having grown up with a mother who struggled through a lot of marital issues to experiencing divorce himself, it’s no surprise that a heavily present theme in many of his plays is difficult marriages. He’s no one trick pony, though. As his career progressed, Ayckbourn wrote plays about everything from a woman going through a “nervous breakdown” to subject matter suitable for children’s theatre.
Aside from switching up his themes, Ayckbourn also likes to bring a touch of daring into other aspects of how he writes and directs. His play, “Intimate Exchanges” has sixteen possible endings! “House & Garden” is essentially two plays taking place simultaneously on two different stages. Another wildly unique work written by Ayckbourn is “Taking Steps.”
This 1979 farce is set on three floors of a dilapidated Victorian house in London. The three rooms the play takes place in are a downstairs living room, an upstairs master bedroom and the maid’s quarters in the attic. The home is reputedly a former bordello that is, at the time of the play, haunted by a deceased prostitute. What’s particularly interesting about this play is that the stage is arranged so that the stairs are flat, and all three floors are on a single level. This results in actors being physically next to each other in real life while their characters are on completely different floors in the play. The audience understands that the characters are moving around the house through the actors miming the movement of walking up and down stairs.
Another thing to note about the staging of this play is that it was written to be performed in the round, like most of Ayckbourn’s plays. Most of the others, however, can be easily adapted for the proscenium while “Taking Steps” can almost only work effectively in the round. After its premiere at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, where Ayckbourn was the artistic director between 1972 and 2009, the West End produced an end-stage version that the playwright himself was unhappy with, saying it looked a bit like a furniture store. Therefore, when it went to Broadway, it was set in the round once again.
Relatively recently (in 2010) Ayckbourn revived “Taking Steps” at Orange Tree Theatre in London, which won universal press acclaim. This is particularly impressive considering only four years prior to that he suffered a stroke. There’s no stopping Ayckbourn though, who premiered his 70th play, “If I Were You,” that very same year.
Though he has now retired as artistic director at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, he still directs premieres and revivals of his work there. Despite all his acclaim, Ayckbourn is dedicated to regional theatre. He began working at Stephen Joseph not too long after leaving school at age 17. He’s been an actor and a stage manager, but at heart is a writer and director, with all but four of his plays having received their first performance at the theatre where he essentially began his career. So, being the man of mystery that he is, living and working across the pond, he may have flown under your radar up until now. But, after you discover Sir Alan Ayckbourn, you’re bound to remember him!
You can get tickets to see Shaker Bridge Theatre’s production of “Taking Steps” here: www.shakerbridgetheatre.org/buy-tickets