You could say that what I do,” says British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, “is a sophisticated version of the correspondence column in sex magazines. Once we know we’re not alone with a problem, there’s a bond of recognition that may enlighten slightly.” And, he could add, entertain mightily. Ayckbourn has had as many as four of his tragicomedies of the sexes running simultaneously in London—a record unmatched by any playwright since the late Sir Noël Coward had five in 1925.
But it’s hard to keep score of Alan. His masterwork, The Norman Conquests, is actually a trilogy alternating on successive nights, ingeniously detailing the country weekend of a pathetically priapic assistant librarian named Norman seeking to diddle his two sisters-in-law. If his work sounds like the sort of English trifling that wouldn’t travel well, consider that Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular has had two companies playing at the same time in the U.S. The original cast boasts the longest running comedy now on Broadway, where The Norman Conquests has also just triumphantly checked in. In fact, Ayckbourn’s works have been translated into 16 languages and played 23 countries. He has written 16 plays, and he is all of 36 years old.
But perhaps the critical number for Alan is two: the number of women in his life. One is the wife he took at 19, Christine Roland, now 39 and mother of his two teenage sons. The other is Heather Stoney, 35, who has long lived with him in a crumbling old vicarage in the old-fashioned seaside resort of Scarborough. “She,” says Ayckbourn of his paramour, “compensates for my graceless attitudes.” And indeed a state of grace and chumminess exists between both women. Christine, still his legal wife, reports, “I am very fond of Heather, and she is so right for Alan, just the sort of anchor and prop he needs. Most of his plays have been about terrible marriages, so maybe it’s a good thing ours was.”
Ayckbourn is certainly less of a bounder than his characters. “I’m not madly Norman,” he insists—or at least not presently—”maybe when I was 17 or 18,” he adds. “I had a very sparkly love life then.” Until late adolescence (when he left to apprentice with a rep company and eventually emerged as a BBC radio producer) his youth had been unsettled. His father, a former first violinist with the London Symphony Orchestra, and his novelist mother were divorced when Alan was just 5. Then there was a stepfather, a bank manager, but one afternoon, Mum walked out on him. “I guess he was just taking it all in,” says Alan’s mother, Lolly, in retrospect. “It’s got now that I’m afraid to say too much when he’s around, or it will wind up in a play.”
These days Ayckbourn gleans his dialogue in Scarborough, where he works—and eavesdrops—more than half the year. “The caffs [cafes] here,” he says, “are marvelous. Conversation floats across from other tables that is pure gold dust.” The crucible for all this delectable dross is Ayckbourn’s tiny theater-in-the-round above the town’s library, where he has a playwright’s dream lab—his own rep company to perfect his works. “I’m a small-theater person,” Ayckbourn says, and suggests that his only turkey, a $310,000 musical adaptation of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves, occurred because it hadn’t been broken in at Scarborough. “The audiences here come straight up from the beach,” says Ayckbourn, “and if you wrote boring plays, they’d simply go to sleep or go away.” Seats in the 256-seat theater cost $1.60 and, as director, Ayckbourn pays himself $90 a week—the same as the rest of the troupe, including his lady, Heather, who doubles as actress and manuscript typist.
His royalties from elsewhere have earned Alan two indulgences—a steel-and-glass pied-à-terre in London’s snooty Hampstead section and a Mercedes-Benz convertible. He makes no other pretense to chic. He could pass for a decade older than he is and noticeably avoids dentists and barbers. His thinning hair is trimmed cheerfully by whichever of his two women is handiest.
He’s now polishing Bedroom Farce, which Ayckbourn explains is “about how the British behave in bed—they play Scrabble, do their accounts and everything but what you expect.” The plot is thickened by four couples in a set comprising three bedrooms. “The French will like it,” says the playwright. “It will confirm all their suspicions.” Paris will have to wait, though. Bedroom Farce won’t even make it from Scarborough to London until November. A perfectionist? Perhaps, but, as Alan notes, “We don’t want to flood the market.