Sir Alan Ayckbourn: ‘My first West End show was a total car crash’

Sharing the stage ... Sir Alan Ayckbourn (right) and his son Philip
Sharing the stage ... Sir Alan Ayckbourn (right) and his son Philip

Sir Alan Ayckbourn, one of Britain’s most successful playwrights, celebrates his 80th birthday this year. So, too, does The Lewes Little Theatre, writes Des McAleer.

Both were born in 1939, two wartime babies, devoted to the playhouse. Sir Alan has a special connection to The Lewes Little Theatre, which has staged more than a score of his plays.

His son, Philip is also a playwright and lives in the town. Philip Ayckbourn’s latest play. ‘Loving Androids’ has opened at theatre, and his proud father came to give his blessing last week.

Philip joined his father on stage at the Lancaster Street venue to launch a celebratory new season of plays.

The 2019/20 season will open on Friday, September 27, and for the first time a theatre season will open with two consecutive plays written by father and son. Alan’s ‘Haunting Julia’, will be followed by the prèmier of Philip’s ‘Psychic Connections’, opening on Friday, October 25.

The plays have a common theme, exploring how the spectres of the past haunt the living present.

The work of the two playwrights forms a kind of dialogue, exploring mutual concerns. Alan Ayckbourn’s earlier work, ‘Henceforward’, concerning the introduction of Androids into family life, seemed science fiction when first performed in 1987. But advances in artificial intelligence are turning fiction into reality.

Philip’s play, ‘Loving Androids’, envisages robots have advanced to form an intimacy with humans, and are capable of autonomous thinking and feeling. Human mistreatment of the android has become a moral issue.

Their two forthcoming plays promise an equally interesting dialogue, using the ghost story genre to explore a haunted mind.

In conversation with the Aykbourns, on stage, the father had useful advice for his son. “Anyone can do a one-off play,” said Sir Alan, “but to keep going, learning on the way, that is the thing. I am so proud of Phil, he’s beginning to get his plays produced now, and is well on the way to being a fully-fledged playwright.

“The worst thing that could happen to a writer is having a smash hit with his first play. Fortunately, my first West End show was a total car crash. The critics were so vicious, I took to my bed for a week.

“What I am most proud of is just to have kept going, just to be able to say that I have a new play coming out this summer, and I am getting a novel published.”

Both Alan and Philip share a love for regional theatre, for that immersion in a community, where theatre-goers know by name the front-of-house staff.

“The great thing about amateur theatre,” said Sir Alan, “is that they can afford to take risks, without the terror of huge financial loss. That is a great freedom. Despite all the pressures, there is a spirit in theatre, a resilience. It will survive.”

Sir Alan is living proof of that. The new season will be announced on Tuesday, April 2.