The playwright Alan Ayckbourn is a standout figure in British theatre, not least as an octogenarian whose plays outnumber his years. Just as his 86th play finishes its run at a tiny theatre near Whitby, his 87th is about to open 20 miles along the Yorkshire coast in his home-from-home, Scarborough. Meanwhile, down in Sussex, Chichester is warming up for a revival of his 1985 comedy Woman in Mind.
What better tonic could there be in this deeply unfunny era than an evening with a consummate craftsman who has spent six decades mining laughter from personal calamity. As a recent Arts Council report spells out, the arts are indeed a tonic, with an important role to play in the mental health of the nation.
As one of the UK’s most commercially successful theatre-makers, Ayckbourn might seem an odd figure to focus on. He is not cutting-edge; he is never going to convert an alienated inner-city youth to the joys of theatregoing. But he is also a local hero, who has earned the loyalty of his public by staying loyal to them.
In the gathering storm of shrinking incomes and ballooning overheads, he puts bums on seats both in established arenas, such as the Stephen Joseph theatre, and in small makeshift venues in areas that, in the current but inadequate jargon, may well qualify as culturally deprived. Take the farming community served by the 102-seat Esk Valley theatre, which has operated from a village hall for the last 17 years and is currently staging Ayckbourn’s All Lies, directed by the maestro himself.
Esk Valley serves a scattered, predominantly elderly population, which was one of the demographics pinpointed in the Arts Council report. A sense of social wellbeing was among the key benefits identified by a study which reported that 82% of adults felt arts engagement – whether watching or taking part – helped them to feel connected.
In keeping with a time of social and economic crisis, the report takes a utilitarian line, focusing on the capacity of the arts to reduce criminality and substance abuse in economically disadvantaged areas. This is valid and politic, but the cited studies tell a richer story of their role in enabling people to “flourish” and to find a meaning in life. Theatre and museum visits make older people, in particular, feel less lonely.
Crucially, the report also points out that the arts are a “perishable commodity”. It’s no good parachuting in a single razzle-dazzle show or dance masterclass: in order to fulfil their therapeutic potential, they have to be kept going, so that the sense of wellbeing they generate is regularly topped up. Public funding isn’t set up to provide such continuity, but the cultural economy often relies on the energy and commitment of individuals, such as the husband-and-wife team – an actor/director and a choreographer – who run the Esk Valley theatre.
They too will need support if they are to weather the economic storm. They may be small but, as their longstanding relationship with Ayckbourn demonstrates, they are a valuable part of a cultural continuum, administering shots of healing laughter that inoculate people against loneliness and despair.