Alan Ayckbourn
Alan Ayckbourn
Sir Alan Ayckbourn's latest play, Neighbourhood Watch, which is now at 59E59 Theaters, is a darkly funny morality tale about a group of suburbanites who band together to form a community vigilance committee. When the play was still in rehearsal this summer, several outbreaks of rioting, arson and looting occurred in London and in several other English cities and towns, and the real-life breakdown of law and order seemed to validate the worst fears of the characters in Ayckbourn's play.

"I was initially nervous about that," says the acclaimed British playwright, who also directs the play. "I'm a person who believes that plays shouldn't be merely topical, they can be up-to-date without being opportunistic," he explains. "But the play isn't about riots. It is about people who, if they begin to lose trust in their appointed social guardians, will start to set up independent schemes to police their neighborhood and keep the crime level down."

The work is not meant to be just realistic, either, he notes. "It is a sort of ironic parable about people, who with the best intentions in the world, wander deeper into the mire of misguided deeds. Obviously when you start a scheme like that the worst thing that happens is that all the people who should never be involved in it hop on the bandwagon and see a chance to become their own self-appointed guardians of other people's morality and behavior. I'm very much against extremism, political or religious, or anything that actually closes the door on other people, so there's no leeway for discussion."

Matthew Cottle and Frances Grey in Neighbourhood Watch
(© Karl Andre Photography)
Matthew Cottle and Frances Grey in Neighbourhood Watch
(© Karl Andre Photography)
The 72-year-old playwright is famously prolific. Indeed, Neighborhood Watch is his 75th play in a career that includes his 1973 trilogy The Norman Conquests, as well as such works as Bedroom Farce, Absurd Person Singular, and My Wonderful Day, most of which are known for their ensemble-like feel. "I don't write those old-style star plays with one name above the title and the other five working all evening with very little acknowledgement," he notes.

His writing career was only interrupted briefly when he suffered a stroke in 2006. But he made a remarkable recovery and continues to write and direct, although he has since stepped down as artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, located in the North England seaside resort town of Scarborough, a post he held for 37 years.

"I was lying there in the hospital and thinking I must give up writing; I didn't have an idea in my head," he recalls. "I was thinking maybe if I can get mobile I can direct some of the back catalog. Of course, then it all got better."

Ayckbourn reports that he feels what he calls "an emptiness" every time he completes a play. "I think, well, this is it. And there is a sort of loneliness and waiting around," he says. "And then suddenly the idea creeps in again and I am so grateful for it emerging. The ideas are coming quite fast at the moment -- probably alarmingly fast. Maybe my brain has gone into acceleration mode before shutting down, I don't know!"

The good news, of course, is that his 76th play, Surprises, will premiere next summer as part of the London 2012 Festival. He describes the work as three linked loved stories set in the world of the future. "It has quite a lot of themes that I have dealt with before, a bit of time travel, a bit of robotics, a little bit of this and a little bit of that," he says. "I call these plays that have their head in the future, but their heart in the past."