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."
Copyright: Michael Billington. All research for this page by Simon Murgatroyd, please credit this website if reproduced.