Alan Ayckbourn likes to compare himself to one of those huge ocean liners that take a long time to stop.
The globally-renowned playwright turned 80 earlier this year, and is a little slower than he used to be, but still has an enviably prodigious output – the venue that is the first to stage most of his work, Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, will proudly present the world premiere of his 83rd full-length play Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present later this year, as well as a revival of his much-loved classic Season’s Greetings.
As always, he’s directing both of those shows – and as if that wasn’t enough to keep a new octogenarian busy, he’s also pulling together and directing a portmanteau show of rehearsed readings from his children’s and family plays, 80 Years Young, as a fundraiser for the SJT, and is thrilled that his script The Divide, produced as a ‘narrative for voices’ during the Edinburgh International Festival in late 2017 and at London’s Old Vic in early 2018, will be published in novel format in the autumn.
It’s the habit of a lifetime. Since he first came to Yorkshire in 1957, aged just 18, to be an acting stage manager at Stephen Joseph’s revolutionary new theatre-in-the-round in Scarborough Library, Alan has worked tirelessly.
In addition to those 83 full-length plays, he has written numerous shorter pieces and directed all the premieres of his own work, and productions of plays by many other writers, and not necessarily those you might expect: Arthur Miller described his A View from the Bridge at the National Theatre in 1987 as the ‘definitive version’.
He also found time to run a theatre, through three incarnations. In 1976 he took the 21-year-old Library Theatre to a new home in Scarborough’s former boys’ high school at Westwood (and gave it a new name, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, following Joseph’s death in 1967).
And 20 years later again, he led the team that oversaw a second move to the theatre’s current home in the town’s former Odeon cinema, where it is known simply as the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
It was during that eventful move in 1996 that he met James, smartly recruited to the theatre’s kitchens as a new graduate from Scarborough Technical College, and who remains to this day one of his favourite chefs.
“When we opened the new building we decided we wanted a restaurant in there. Restaurants and theatres: sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t! We really fell on our feet because our first chef turned out to be James, and we thought ‘this is it’ – we were full every night, and it was our dream come true.
“And then he left to pursue other jobs – and we miss you James, desperately!
“The Pipe and Glass is heaven – it’s just a bit far away for me now, I wish he’d move it a bit nearer! It’s my sort of restaurant: excellent game, wonderful meat – and an absolutely fantastic prawn cocktail. Beautiful cooking and a lovely ambience – it’s like being in a really swish restaurant but without any chi-chi nonsense. It’s so unpretentious, just an absolute gastronomic joy.”
Alan at 80
Alan Ayckbourn shows no signs of slowing down. For the summer of 2019, he directed a revival of his classic Season’s Greetings plus his new play Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present – a production which gained the rare accolade of being featured in the ‘What the critics would pay to see’ section of The Times.
And in September, he joined Hornsea’s PS Publishing to launch the novel version of his ‘narrative for voices’, The Divide, a fable that unflinchingly examines a dystopian society of brutal repression, forbidden love and seething insurrection.
The author said: “This is a new experience for me. Eighty-three plays, God knows how many nerve-racking theatre press nights and now this. The very first book launch of my very first novel. “Lord, the things you take on at 80!”