Since 1976, ACT Theatre has produced ten plays by Alan Ayckbourn – and that’s just a fraction of the 74-year-old English playwright’s catalogue. But this fall’s production of "Sugar Daddies" (2003) brings Seattle not only the honor of a North American premiere, but the presence of Sir Alan himself in his West Coast debut as a director. (He was knighted in 1997.)
Ayckbourn’s breakthrough hit came with the London production in 1967 with “Relatively Speaking,” a fresh, hilariously constructed twist on the well-worn gag of lovers caught in a web of mistaken identity. Here already was the characteristic Ayckbournian touch, with its preoccupation with role playing and marital discontent. Some claim him to be one of “the world’s most-performed living playwrights,” though Ayckbourn’s own website points out “there is actually no plausible way to prove this statement.”
But what sets him apart is that his undeniably widespread – and sustained – popularity goes hand in hand with his untiring experimentation with theatricality and stagecraft.
And while he is usually thought of first and foremost as a comic master, Ayckbourn’s plays have become significantly more complex over time. “Sugar Daddies” in particular mingles satire and clever dialogue, taking a dark slant on a youth and beauty meets age and power scenario.
Set in the contemporary London flat shared by half-sisters Sasha and Chloé, the play explores how they are affected when the younger, naïve Sasha is befriended by the elderly Val (old enough to be her grandfather). His extravagant gifts and nights out to the opera distract her from asking too much about Val’s sinister background – even when she’s warned by Ashley, their one-eyed neighbor and a former cop whose own past connection to Val is veiled in mystery. Ayckbourn’s absurd yet meticulously crafted symmetries resemble a cautionary retooling of Cinderella, where sudden shifts in fortune prove too good to be true.
I met up with Sir Alan during a break from rehearsal to talk about “Sugar Daddies,” his remarkable career and the future of theatre.
How were you persuaded to come to Seattle – and what made you choose “Sugar Daddies” in particular to show audiences here the director side of your career?
It has been brewing for some years. When [ACT artistic director] Kurt Beattie came over to visit me in England, he slid me a schematic of the Allen Theatre, which is not so far removed from our own theatre in the round in Scarborough. [The Stephen Joseph Theatre on the northern coast of England, which has served as his artistic home base for decades.]
The ethos [of ACT] is very close to it. Both are interested in new writing, but are also very egalitarian – not like the old style, where the stage management were below stairs, the actors upstairs. And much more friendly. I’ve gotten asked dozens of times in England, “Why are you going to Seattle?” And I said, “Because they asked me!”
I chose “Sugar Daddies” as a play that hasn’t been done here and that I would like to revisit. From my knowledge of working in the States, it’s the sort of play American actors could embrace. Some of my plays are so English you’d spend most of the rehearsal period explaining the class system. We are doing [“Sugar Daddies”] as set in England, but nonetheless it’s fairly universal in its concerns.
It’s probably a bit of a surprise to many who love your plays that you actually spend much more of your time on directing than writing. Yet somehow you’ve managed to remain a wildly popular and prolific writer (77 full-length plays and counting).
I’ve had three careers in theatre: I started as an actor and then took, as I call it, the “poison chalice” of directing. Once you feel you’re in control as a director, it’s harder to go back to acting. The directing career developed quite independently from my writing career at first. Then the two almost inevitably merged, but quite later on.
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