Advocates: Michael Billington

Michael Billington OBE is an author, broadcaster and one of the UK's leading theatre critics; he is considered the UK's longest serving theatre critic having been a drama critic in The Guardian since 1971. He has written extensively on theatre and his published work includes books on the National Theatre, Harold Pinter and Alan Ayckbourn.


"As I see it, Ayckbourn is a left-wing writer using a right-wing form; and even if there is nothing strident, obvious or noisy about his socialism, it is none the less apparent that he has a real detestation for the money-grabber, the status-seeker and the get-rich-quicker. Conversely, he instinctively seems drawn to the nervy, vulnerable and unsure."

"Like all first rate comedy, Ayckbourn's plays are only funny because they are about serious issues."

"It would be a mistake to assume that he [Ayckbourn] is just an amiable, innocuous funny man who passes time pleasantly in the theatre for a couple of hours… I defy anyone to sit through it all [The Norman Conquests] and not feel that he has been given a funny serious-moving and comprehensive account of the awfulness of the middle-class family rituals un-fuelled by love or understanding."

"Ayckbourn is serious as well as popular. His seventeen best-known full-length plays add up to a withering portrait of the horror of modern marriage, of the battleground of family life, of the secular explosiveness of middle-management, of the hollowness of familiar social rituals. His chosen form is farce and comedy; but behind the laughter there is a good deal of pain and anger."

"Ayckbourn writes about women with a sympathy and understanding unrivalled amongst his male contemporaries. His plays are filled with neglected, frustrated, unfulfilled middle-class wives (Hedda Gablers of the suburbs) ignored or deceived by their husbands and untrained for meaningful careers."

"What Ayckbourn's success proves is that a writer blessed with his own theatre can be thematically risky and technically experimental…. What is undeniable is that he constantly extends the frontiers of comedy while retaining his common touch: and it is only the destructive decision in our culture between the 'serious' and the 'popular' that prevents us seeing Ayckbourn is a pathfinding innovator rather than boulevard lightweight."

"Ayckbourn looks safe: in fact, he takes outlandish risks. He writes, initially for a comfortably seaside audience who have clearly come for a good night out. He then gives them a play like Woman In Mind which deals with temporary insanity, which puts the agents of God and the Devil on stage and which leaves the audience constantly guessing as to what is reality and what is fantasy. But perhaps his greatest risk - and a sign of his maturity as a dramatist - is that he leaves it to us to decide what is funny."

"Two established dramatists did, however, end the decade [the 1980s] with their reputations greatly enhanced: Alan Ayckbourn and David Hare. For all their obvious differences, what unites them is their tireless dedication to the idea of theatre and their fierce moral concern with the state of the nation. Ayckbourn began the decade with Way Upstream and a group of characters drifting aboard a cabin-cruiser towards Armageddon Bridge. He went on to tackle sanctioned greed in A Small Family Business, social disintegration and the technological nightmare in Henceforward…, the cult of the criminal in Man Of The Moment. Ayckbourn's genius is to make us laugh while exposing the moral bankruptcy of the age."

"His fame as a writer tends to obscure his prowess as a director: one adept at solving the fiendish technical problems posed by his creative half."

"Like all good comedy, Ayckbourn's plays are about something important."

"Heaven forbid he should stop writing and cultivate his garden. Given the incredible quantity, there's bound to be fluctuations in quality. He's had ups and downs before. Let's be amazed at his prodigality and hope for the best."

"Many dramatists, from McGuinness to Mark Ravenhill, have told me how much he [Ayckbourn] has influenced them. This play [A Small Family Business], in particular, offers a devastating assault on the way the entrepreneurial values we were taught to admire in the eighties lead ultimately to fraud, theft, self-deceit, even homicide. It is the modern equivalent of An Inspector Calls - only, being Ayckbourn, far funnier. It argues just as passionately as the work of more overtly political writers that there is such a thing as society. Confirms that British drama, not least in the second half of the century has acted in opposition to the prevailing ethos."(1997)

"Without a shadow of a doubt, Ayckbourn being a world class playwright has overshadowed his equally brilliant career as a director. And I would say not just as a director of plays, but as a director of a theatre in Scarborough, of course, for pretty much four decades."

"For me, the play that offered the sharpest attack on Thatcherite values came from the supposedly apolitical Alan Ayckbourn. In A Small Family Business (1987), without ever mentioning Mrs Thatcher but to devastatingly comic effect, Ayckbourn pinned down the essential contradiction in her beliefs: that you cannot simultaneously sanctify traditional family values and individual greed. If you do, implies Ayckbourn, you end up with a family that owes more to the Mafia than morality."

"No one who saw it will ever forget Alan Ayckbourn's 1987 production of A View from the Bridge or Michael Gambon's titanic performance as a passion-fuelled Brooklyn longshoreman."

A Chorus Of Approval (1999)
In 1999, the Stephen Joseph Theatre held a special event to mark Alan Ayckbourn's 60th birthday. This was accompanied by a publication including tributes from some of the people he has worked with. This is a complete transcript of the contribution.

"What can I say about Alan that I haven't said already? I once wrote a book about him that tried to pin down my feelings about his work. That he tells truth about human relationships. That he is a genuine pioneer who plays with the possibilities of space, time, alternative action. That he leaps lightly over the barriers we erect between serious and popular art: a German critic who called him 'the Molière of the middle-classes' got it right.

"But in Britain we still tend to be a bit po-faced about writers who communicate truth through laughter. Not so long ago Alan’s
Things We Do For Love was playing in Shaftesbury Avenue alongside Patrick Marber’s Closer. It struck me that both plays, though coming from different generations, were saying something very similar: that love is inseparable from pain and violence. But few people spotted the parallel. And Alan's play, because it used a comic form was not perceived to be as radical or dangerous.

"I am convinced that Alan's plays - along with Harold Pinter's - will be cherished by posterity. Maybe one day there'll be a Royal Ayckbourn Company. Or maybe there'll be an Alan Ayckbourn theatre. You could, in short, have a future contest between the RAC and the AA.

"But what strikes me, on Alan’s 60th birthday, is that we should salute his work as a director: both as an artistic director and a director of plays. At a time when people in theatre seem terrified of putting down roots, he has stayed loyal to Scarborough for 30 years. Not only that, he has produced countless new plays in that period: more, I am sure, than any comparable theatre outside London. Because he's a great writer, we also forget what a fine director he is both of his own and other people's work. Was there ever a better production of an Arthur Miller play than his
A View From The Bridge at the National which constantly reminded us of the world beyond the Carbone household?

"Everyone has a favourite Ayckbourn story. My own concerns both his ability to write to a deadline and the consequences it has for actors. Pushing danger to the limits he once finished a new play, scheduled to have its first reading the following morning late on a Sunday night. He drove round Scarborough in the wee small hours hours to deliver scripts to the actors' homes so at least they would have them to read over breakfast. As he pushed a script through one letterbox in a gloomily darkened hallway, he suddenly, to his alarm, felt a prehensile hand on the other side clawing it desperately from his grasp...

"Alan himself told me the story which shows that his awareness of the absurdity of life extends to himself. Which probably explains exactly why he has lasted so gloriously long. May he have the happiest and most festive of birthdays."
Copyright: Michael Billington. All research for this page by Simon Murgatroyd, please credit this website if reproduced.