Apart from Harold Pinter, perhaps, Alan Ayckbourn is the most famous playwright in England, and certainly the most successful dramatist in his own lifetime. In 1973, he had five plays running concurrently in London’s West End, and four on Broadway. New York has even renamed a street “Ayckbourn Alley.” Knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1997 for his services to the theater, the author of Absurd Person Singular (1972), The Norman Conquests (1973), and Just Between Ourselves (1976), among dozens of plays, has garnered numerous awards and is known around the world. Yet Ayckbourn has mainly worked since 1957 in a repertory theater in the small Yorkshire seaside town of Scarborough, and he is primarily a director of his own and others’ work who spends only about 10% of his time writing.
Paul Allen’s biography is an insider’s view of this complex and prolific theater figure. A playwright and director himself, Allen focuses on the plays as much as the playwright, and gives detailed descriptions of casts and performances whenever the plays first emerged. The style is chatty, a perfect fit for the comic, often satirical tone of much of Ayckbourn’s work, and Allen’s narrative takes readers backstage to understand the mechanics and the meaning of these plays. There is as much here on stagecraft and technique as on Ayckbourn’s personal life. What isn’t here, unfortunately, is any appendix giving a list of the full body of work, or a bibliography where readers could track down the numerous quotations, many from Ayckbourn himself, which enliven the biography. Still, this is the best overview of a brilliant dramatic career.