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Legit’s energizer bunny Ayckbourn

Brit playwright readies 65th play

Here’s one for the history books: Alan Ayckbourn has now written as many plays — 64 — as he has celebrated birthdays. Think about it. Few 1-year-olds have one play to their name, while even William Shakespeare hadn’t penned all 37 (or 38) plays by the time he reached age 38.

But with an upsurge in his already astonishing output that will find Ayckbourn premiering his 65th play (“My Sister Sadie,” due at Christmas) before the year is out, here is one dramatist who continues undaunted, even as the climate in which he is writing changes around him.

The obvious mainstay in Ayckbourn’s creative life is the Stephen Joseph Theater in the English coastal town of Scarborough, where the playwright has been artistic director since 1970. So busy is he at his Yorkshire base that there has been some dispute about which play is No. 64.

Is it “Sugar Daddies,” which opened July 22 to some of the best reviews Ayckbourn has seen in some time? (The Times and the Guardian both awarded it four stars out of five, while the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish praised the dark comedy’s “thrilling compactness and constantly sparky wit.”)

“Sugar Daddies” is No. 64 if you count the plays in the order they were written, not in which they were premiered.

Do it the other way round, and Ayckbourn’s imminent project gets the nod: “Orvin — Champion of Champions,” a musical written for a cast of 40 that opens in Scarborough Aug. 8. A co-production with the National Youth Music Theater, the show has music by Denis King, who did the score for Peter Nichols’ “Privates on Parade.”

And although “Orvin” may be a show for children, it merits inclusion in the overall tally, Ayckbourn says. “I do count them as full-length plays,” the dramatist says of the dozen or so kids’ scripts to his name. “I’ve become more sophisticated” in these plays, too, he points out — to wit, the anti-war theme that fuels the children’s show after “Orvin.” “I don’t really compromise at all.”

Where Ayckbourn has felt compromised of late is in the commercial sphere, where he is no longer the guarantor of box office gold that he was 10 or 20 years ago.

Such West End long-runners as “Comic Potential,” starring Janie Dee in one of the rare perfs to win all three best actress prizes available in the London theater, didn’t quite pay back — a surprise B.O. underperformer given sensational reviews, for Dee in particular. (Thesp reprised her role to virtually equal acclaim Off Broadway at the Manhattan Theater Club.)

Far more calamitous was the West End fate last autumn at the Duchess Theater of Ayckbourn’s ambitious trilogy, “Damsels in Distress,” a sequence of three essentially discrete plays performed on the same set by the same Scarborough — and, hence, unstarry — company. Not only did the plays never begin to return their £250,000 ($400,000) capitalization, but what was intended as an event-like triptych became something else when one of the plays, “RolePlay,” was privileged by the producers over the other two, leaving “Game Plan” and “Flat Spin” for most of the run doing just one perf a week.

The scheduling shift, says Ayckbourn, “could have been done with less panic. (The plays) needed nursing, and I didn’t think they were nursed well.” What’s more, by valuing one play over the others, the producers, per Ayckbourn, “tried to make ‘Damsels’ an ordinary West End run, and it wasn’t that. Its only strength — a star, if a star there was — was in the trilogy of three plays, and if you don’t appreciate that, you have nothing to sell.”

Add to that his disappointment — aesthetic this time, not commercial — in a 2002 Aldwych Theater revival of “Bedroom Farce,” directed by Loveday Ingram, and Ayckbourn says his “automatic commitment to (producer) Michael Codron has ended.” “Bedroom Farce,” he says, “wasn’t in the end, I’m afraid, up to standards, for various reasons.” (Anyone who saw the original would agree.)

The show paid back for the 12 weeks that stars Richard Briers and June Whitfield were prepared to give it, but the experience hasn’t shifted Ayckbourn from his now firmly held belief: “I will only go to the West End if it feels right — and not if the feeling is, ‘Oh, another play; let’s push it in.'”

How does Codron respond? “Of course, I regret it very much indeed. Maybe it’s a passing thing; after all, Alan and I are friends.” But the veteran impresario defends the decision of the five “Damsels” producers (Andrew Lloyd Webber among them) to program one of the trilogy over the other two.

“The notices for one play were stronger — much stronger — than for the others,” Codron says. “It seemed the sensible thing to do.”

Looking ahead, Ayckbourn sounds reluctant to tether his playwriting mast to any one producer again: “I don’t want to swap a permanent relationship with one for a permanent relationship with another.” (Nor has he worked exclusively with Codron. “Communicating Doors” was produced in the West End by Duncan Weldon, while the superb but shiveringly bleak “Wildest Dreams” began at the RSC.)

In an attempt to ensure greater producing control, Ayckbourn is launching a touring initiative between his Stephen Joseph Theater and the Yvonne Arnaud Theater in Guildford, Surrey, southwest of London. The two venues — both “with the same sort of approach,” Ayckbourn says — will launch a tour of “Sugar Daddies” in January, and “probably take on a third partner” (as yet unnamed) if the play then transfers into the West End.

Further ahead is a seven-week tour in fall 2004 of Ayckbourn’s 1982 play “Season’s Greetings.” Where possible, Ayckbourn speaks of being able to use on tour and in London the repertory actors he has generally first employed in Scarborough, as opposed to a bygone pattern whereby the Yorkshire unknowns were replaced with London “names” (Julia McKenzie, an Ayckbourn favorite, most prominently).

Casting his eye across the Atlantic, Ayckbourn reflects on the swift demise of “By Jeeves,” his 2001 Broadway flop — co-authored with Lloyd Webber — which opened in the wake of 9/11 and was gone by New Year’s. “Andrew thought Americans would be running in the streets saying, ‘We’ve been saved by the British,’ (but) the pride of New Yorkers said, ‘To hell with it.’ ” (Cast member Martin Jarvis is publishing in the U.K. in September his own highly entertaining account of the show’s speedy fade.)

As for the future? Fewer directing jobs along the lines of the recent Tim Firth play “The Safari Party,” which Ayckbourn helmed in Yorkshire and then at London’s Hampstead Theater. “That’s my last one, frankly; I need the energy at 64 to write.”

How many plays does he envision having penned in total? Ayckbourn laughs.

“I’m just glad to get to the next one. I would hate to be writing past my sell-by date.”