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Mark Shenton’s top six Alan Ayckbourn shows

The cast of House at Watermill Theatre, Newbury The cast of House at Watermill Theatre, Newbury
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For more than 60 years now and continuing, Alan Ayckbourn has been among our most pre-eminent and prolific playwrights. With at least one new play a year every year opening like clockwork at his Scarborough theatrical base, the Stephen Joseph Theatre, where he used to be artistic director but is now just its resident writer in every sense, this year will see his 81st play premiere there. A Brief History of Women opens in September, while this year’s Edinburgh International Festival will premiere the two-parter The Divide at the King’s Theatre in August, prior to a planned run at the Old Vic in London.

We seem to be never far from an Ayckbourn revival, either: I’m heading back this weekend to see the wonderful revival of House and Garden – played in an actual house and garden – at Newbury’s Watermill Theatre again. Chichester Festival Theatre will be offering a revival of The Norman Conquests Trilogy in September. And the Old Laundry in Bowness-in-Windermere is reviving By Jeeves, a musical collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber, in October. Scarborough will soon also see Ayckbourn himself directing a revival of Taking Steps from July 13; while Bill Kenwright Productions, which regularly produces his work, is offering a new tour of How the Other Half Loves, kicking off at Windsor Theatre Royal from August 30.

With so very many plays to choose from, it’s hard to produce a list of favourites – but these are the six plays (or cycles of plays) I could see again and again.

Stephen Mangan in Living Together from The Norman Conquests at the Old Vic, London, in 2008. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Stephen Mangan in Living Together from The Norman Conquests at the Old Vic, London, in 2008. Photo: Tristram Kenton

1. The Norman Conquests

This trilogy of plays – revolving around the same six characters over the same weekend in a different part of the same house (dining room, living room and garden) – first premiered in Scarborough in 1973, before transferring to the West End; the 2008 London Old Vic revival subsequently moved to New York’s Circle in the Square. It was an early example of Ayckbourn’s unrivalled theatrical ingenuity and audacity, and they excavate deep feeling below the frequently hilarious surface. Ayckbourn once remarked of writing this: “Usually when I write a play I feel my head is peering up from a fox-hole while the critics take pot-shots. With the trilogy I felt I was standing up.”

2. Absurd Person Singular

This dark Christmas comedy – originally premiered in 1972 and set in the homes of three married couples on successive Christmas Eves – is desperately funny as well as hilariously desperate. It plays like clockwork: a precision-engineered comic farce of increasingly dark turns. In a review for the Daily Telegraph of the original West End production, John Barber wrote: “What is remarkable about Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy at the Criterion Theatre is that it contrives to be simultaneously hilarious and harrowing. Literally, it is agonisingly funny… Mr Ayckbourn harrows us not with skeletons in the cupboard but with the anguish of the blocked drain, the squashed trifle and the quietly breaking heart.”

Janie Dee in Woman in Mind at the Vaudeville Theatre, London, in 2008. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Janie Dee in Woman in Mind at the Vaudeville Theatre, London, in 2008. Photo: Tristram Kenton

3. Woman in Mind

First seen at Scarborough in 1985 and then in the West End in 1986 with Julia McKenzie as a housewife undergoing a mental breakdown, this bruising play goes deep into her mind. As Jack Tinker wrote in his review of the West End premiere in 1986: “[Ayckbourn] can still produce the sort of theatrical surprise and emotional intensity which knocks you for six… This is Ayckbourn at his least benign. Once more he has laid suburbia out on the psychiatrist’s couch and ruthlessly analysed it’s murky subconscious. The fact that he makes us laugh out loud should mislead no one into calling it a comedy.”

4. House and Garden

Ayckbourn’s ingenious concept for this pair of plays – first seen at Scarborough in 1999, then at the National in 2000 – is that they are performed by the same cast, simultaneously, in two locations to two different audiences at the same time: one is set in a country house, the other in its garden. Similar in concept to The Norman Conquests, but an advance on that form in terms of its technical construction, Ayckbourn once compared the two cycles and said: “You can’t run The Norman Conquests simultaneously. Somebody once tried to do all three plays simultaneously and they don’t work. The timings are out. You have a sense you’re seeing simultaneous events but you don’t really. House and Garden, written 25 years later, was the version where I did write concurrent events.”

Way Upstream, Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Way Upstream at Chichester Festival Theatre in 2015. Photo: Tristram Kenton

5. Way Upstream

This apocalyptic comedy – set aboard a boat travelling down a river – was premiered in Scarborough in 1981 and subsequently came to the National in 1982, where a leaky onstage tank that contained the water for the river threatened to drown the Lyttelton. Not all the critics were kind – writing in Punch, Sheridan Morley declared: “Another Scarborough wreck has been hauled south and the sooner it gets a decent burial at sea the better.” But in The Stage, Peter Hepple saw something a lot more profound: “At times the author achieves what he has never accomplished before – suspense and acute disturbance. A pointer for the future, possibly.” A 2015 revival at Chichester, directed by Nadia Fall, proved that it had been severely underrated.

6. Comic Potential

Premiered in Scarborough in 1998 and then in the West End in 1999, this play deservedly won Janie Dee the triple line-up of Olivier, Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards for best actress, in the role of Jacie Tripplethree, an android. As Ben Brantley wrote of her performance in the play’s New York transfer for the New York Times in 2000: “Ms Dee gives a performance of mouth-dropping technical finesse, self-contained logic and, most improbably of all, wholesale conviction. She actually finds the heart in her synthetic character just as surely as Jack Haley located one in the teary Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, and she does so in ways that unsettle almost as much as they charm.” And so does the play; as Charles Spencer noted in his Daily Telegraph review of the West End premiere: “What’s startling about Comic Potential is the amazing range of ground it covers, leaping from sharp satire and caper comedy into a funny, fascinating, surprisingly moving inquiry into what it means to be human… It’s an evening of pure pleasure.”